The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

An Indian-American immigrant named after a Russian writer struggles to find his place in the world.

I know the month is only 2 days young, but The Namesake might be my favorite read of October. Sprawling and intimate, Gogol Ganguli’s story riveted me in a way that I wish Zadie Smith’s White Teeth had. Though perhaps that’s just that I’m an American and not British. I found Gogol’s world and struggles to be accessible, and I connected with him even though he’s very different from me. That didn’t happen with any of the characters in White Teeth.

I have some context for “knowing” Gogol. A very close friend of mine from college is first-generation Indian-American, and she and I used to bond over our family’s strict expectations of us: I was supposed to marry another churchgoing Christian, and she was supposed to marry a nice Indian boy. As soon as possible, of course. Both of us had strong ambitions to be much more than married, and chafed against the box we felt we were being put in by dint of our culturally-specific upbringings. We ended up getting married within 6 weeks of one another, when we were 30. I met a nice young man at church and brought him to my friend’s traditional Hindi wedding. Needless to say, we both made our parents very proud and all we had to do was fall in love!

Anyway, I don’t really know how similar my friend’s upbringing was to Gogol’s, or if I’m making a gross generalization by drawing the comparison. I did keep looking for her in Gogol, or in his sister, or in Moushumi. And when the big Indian wedding scene came, it took me back to my friend’s wedding, and how beautiful she looked in her saris with the mendhi on her arms, laden with jewels, and the rituals of the Hindi ceremony. We all wore saris, too, and her little cousins showed us how to dance to the Indian pop music at the reception. I don’t know what that day was like for her, but after reading The Namesake I think that she probably had more going on inside than I did on my wedding day.

Back to Gogol Ganguli. I can’t praise Lahiri’s writing enough. I loved every word she wrote, and even stayed up way past my bedtime to finish it. Given that I’m 8 months pregnant and exhausted, this is pretty high praise. And I’ve heard great things about the movie, so it’s going to the top of my Netflix queue.

Thanks to frequent commenter Adler Fleiger for issuing a challenge that I read a book by an Indian author.

18 thoughts on “The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri”

  1. Oh great! You read the book I was hoping you would read from your Bookmooch list! I believe the movie is set for dvd release in November sometime, I’m eagerly waiting for it as well.

  2. Nice to know you loved the book. Ironically, I have yet to get to the book.

    Do watch the movie. Apart from the story, the movie also features some quite good actors in Indian film industry.

  3. Have you read her book of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies? I loved the Namesake, but I loved IoM even more. I have a college friend who is from India, so much like you, Lahiri’s books really speak to me. I heard a rumor that she has another book of short stories coming out in the spring…

  4. I’m glad you liked this one as well. I loved it when I read it a couple of years ago, and I’ve been (im)patiently waiting for Lahiri to come out with either a new novel or another collection of short stories.

    Have you read Interpreter of Maladies? That’s the collection that won her a Pulitzer, and I found it to be very strong!

  5. So much love for Lahiri! I have not read Interpreter of Maladies. I had a roommate ages ago who recommended it, but I never got around to reading her copy while we lived together. Looks like I’m headed to Bookmooch to see if I can get it!

  6. What an interesting book! And your friend’s wedding sounds lovely. I’m lucky that my mother had actually encouraged me to wait to marry until I found the right person and felt ready for it. For some reason—I have no idea why, so don’t ask, it’s one of those inexplicable childhood things—I had long ago decided that I didn’t want to get married until I was at least 26. As it turned out, I got married at 28. 🙂

  7. Thanks for leaving this link on my blog after reading my review. Now I remember that you recommended The Namesake after I said how much I loved Interpreter of Maladies, and I’m glad I did, though I did enjoy Interpreter more. Your reviews are always stimulating!

  8. I really like her as a stylist, is I guess the word I’m looking for, but in terms narrative arc, I wound up more than a little disappointed. There were gaps in the story toward the end that really surprised me, but also underscored a growing reluctance to get into much of Gogol’s emotional life. For much of the book, the story purported to follow his struggle to come to terms with who he was (I thought), yet in the situations that seemed to offer some of the richest opportunities to examine his struggle, she really falls short. Wouldn’t the intimate details of his various relationships expose those contradictions and tensions more than anything else? Yet we ultimately learn fairly little from them.

    So … Richly detailed as her many scenes are, I leave ‘Namesake’ a bit frustrated and disappointed. So far (having read just this and ‘Interpreter’) I think she does better and is more narratively assured in the form of the short story.

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