Any talk of The Namesake
--Jhumpa Lahiri's follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies
--must begin with a name: Gogol Ganguli. Born to an Indian academic and his wife, Gogol is afflicted from birth with a name that is neither Indian nor American nor even really a first name at all. He is given the name by his father who, before he came to America to study at MIT, was almost killed in a train wreck in India. Rescuers caught sight of the volume of Nikolai Gogol's short stories that he held, and hauled him from the train. Ashoke gives his American-born son the name as a kind of placeholder, and the awkward thing sticks.
Awkwardness is Gogol's birthright. He grows up a bright American boy, goes to Yale, has pretty girlfriends, becomes a successful architect, but like many second-generation immigrants, he can never quite find his place in the world. There's a lovely section where he dates a wealthy, cultured young Manhattan woman who lives with her charming parents. They fold Gogol into their easy, elegant life, but even here he can find no peace and he breaks off the relationship. His mother finally sets him up on a blind date with the daughter of a Bengali friend, and Gogol thinks he has found his match. Moushumi, like Gogol, is at odds with the Indian-American world she inhabits. She has found, however, a circuitous escape: "At Brown, her rebellion had been academic ... she'd pursued a double major in French. Immersing herself in a third language, a third culture, had been her refuge--she approached French, unlike things American or Indian, without guilt, or misgiving, or expectation of any kind." Lahiri documents these quiet rebellions and random longings with great sensitivity. There's no cleverness or showing-off in The Namesake, just beautifully confident storytelling. Gogol's story is neither comedy nor tragedy; it's simply that ordinary, hard-to-get-down-on-paper commodity: real life. --Claire Dederer
Lahiri's short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies
, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, and her deeply knowing, avidly descriptive, and luxuriously paced first novel is equally triumphant. Ashoke Ganguli, a doctoral candidate at MIT, chose Gogol as a pet name for his and his wife's first-born because a volume of the Russian writer's work literally saved his life, but, in one of many confusions endured by the immigrant Bengali couple, Gogol ends up on the boy's birth certificate. Unaware of the dramatic story behind his unusual and, eventually, much hated name, Gogol refuses to read his namesake's work, and just before he leaves for Yale, he goes to court to change his name to Nikhil. Immensely relieved to escape his parents' stubbornly all-Bengali world, he does his best to shed his Indianness, losing himself in the study of architecture and passionate if rocky love affairs. But of course he will always be Gogol, just as he will always be Bengali, forever influenced by his parents' extreme caution and restraint. No detail of Nikhil's intriguing life is too small for Lahiri's keen and zealous attention as she painstakingly considers the viability of transplanted traditions, the many shades of otherness, and the lifelong work of defining and accepting oneself. Donna SeamanCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved