Book Review: The Namesake

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For his father had a point; the only person who didn’t take Gogol seriously, the only person who tormented him, the only person chronically aware of and afflicted by the embarrassment of his name, the only person who constantly questioned it and wished it were otherwise, was Gogol. And yet he’d continued, saying that they should be glad, that his official name would be Bengali, not Russian.

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

In some ways, there’s nothing at all remarkable about Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli, the protagonist of The Namesake, or his story. The firstborn child of Bengali immigrants, Gogol is fairly typical: slightly ashamed of his conservative parents and of what he considers a “backwards” culture, yet still comforted by and tied to his culture. The relationship that Gogol has with his parents, while representative of many similar relationships between immigrant parents and their American-born offspring, still feels like the usual combination of guilt, obligation, and love common to any parent-child relationship.

You could argue that what makes The Namesake unique in comparison to the plethora of other novels about the immigrant experience is in the novel’s title itself: Gogol’s unusual name. Named after Nikolai Gogol, whose collection of short stories Gogol’s father credits with saving his life, Gogol’s name, while not a traditional Bengali name, is an overt symbol of his embarrassment at his inability to completely embody the Americanness that he feels he is entitled to. While I (blessed with a deceptively spelled name that 90% of people mispronounce on the first try) sympathized with Gogol’s pain at his given name, I didn’t find this to be the most interesting part of the novel.

At times, the plot of the novel is plodding. After all, the novel begins with the circumstances of Gogol’s birth and ends with Gogol, now dubbed Nikhil, in his thirties, with his various milestones and relationships described in impressively excruciating detail. There were parts I skimmed, especially those dedicated to non-central characters that I simply was not interested in.

But what makes this novel special, and beautiful, is the language. Lahiri’s prose is quietly determined to engage and interest the reader even in the rather mundane details of the Gangulis’ initial landlords upon their arrival in the U.S., the dozens of Bengali families and acquaintances, the numerous parties thrown by the Gangulis to celebrate birthdays, graduations, Christmases. With some novels, you can tell that each detail is carefully crafted by the author to contribute to the novel’s atmosphere or message, and this is one of them. While certain moments and Gogol’s relationships with the various women in his life are clearly meant to portray the contrast between American and Bengali culture, none of these situations felt forced. They were all incredibly realistic, so much so that I could see some of Gogol’s traits in my friends, my acquaintances, and myself. Despite being from a different culture, I find that often, as an immigrant, I identify with any immigrant story, especially when told as engrossingly as in The Namesake. I found myself enchanted by the way even simple everyday things were described in loving, enlightening detail.

YES OR NO?: YES. Gogol/Nikhil’s life is one that every reader can identify with, whether or not they are the child of immigrants, immigrants themselves, or neither. The only (small) issue I had with the novel was the lack of focus on the characterization of Sonia, Nikhil’s younger sister. Although I realize that Gogol is the center of the novel, I thought that the lack of information on Sonia, other than when necessitated by the plot, was a weak point of the narration. Other than that, though, I surprised myself by speeding through this book within a day.

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