Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I found Jhumpa Lahiri through her anthology Unaccustomed Earth, which was my #1 book of 2008. Almost a year and a half later, I return to Lahiri, this time in novel form. The Namesake has rough edges not visible in Lahiri's later efforts, but the same magic that so impressed me in her short stories is there even in this earlier novel.
This is a story that captivates because it becomes so personal. The birth and development of Gogol Ganguli, a second-generation Indian in the United States, fascinates me because I grew up in a household so different from the Bengali culture Lahiri depicts here. However, I can still identify with Gogol's struggle for self-identity—who can't? Not all of us change or names, but most of us, at least once in our lives, feel lost and unsure of who we are. It's this dual sense of the alien and the familiar that makes The Namesake compelling, at least for me: I can recognize truths about my own life because they're presented against a background that differs from my own.
Gogol does not struggle against his parents' attempt to enforce an "Indian" or "Bengali" identity so much as he struggles against more personal definitions of self, such as his name. As a child, he rejects his parents' attempts to give him an official "good name" of "Nikhil." Upon entering university, he changes his name to Nikhil to escape the connotations of his namesake, Nikolai Gogol. This becomes a recurring theme throughout Gogol's life, and a curious one: he rejects his parents' intervention, then succumbs to it, often once they regard it as folly. We see this again in his relationship with Moushumi. At first he dates very "American" women and resists his mother's attempts to fix him up with Moushumi. Later, after he meets Moushumi and marries her, his mother regrets her matchmaking when the relationship doesn't work out.
Most of the book focuses on Gogol's relationships with women. He never seems to have a close male friend, or even close platonic friendships with women. The only men who have a long term impact on Gogol's life are his namesake and his father: "the man who gave you his name, and the man who gave you your name." I like how Lahiri charts their influence on Gogol, from how he views his names to how he views his father. Yet her exclusive focus on Gogol's relationships seems so narrow. We never see his interactions with professors or roommates, beyond a few meagre lines of dialogue. We never meet his colleagues. Gogol exists with a buffer zone around him, upon which only girlfriends and family members impinge.
I appreciate the multiple perspectives Lahiri uses, delving at times into the minds of Gogol's mother, father, and Moushumi. Each of them carries their own conflicts and doubts, not just about Gogol but about their own lives. The contrast between Gogol's parents' lives and Gogol's own life is striking: a single generation changes so much. As Gogol's mother puts it:
She no longer wonders what it might have been like to do what her children have done, to fall in love first rather than years later, to deliberate over a period of months or years and not a single afternoon, which was the time it had taken for her and Ashoke to agree to wed.
It's these multiple perspectives that give a sense of meaning to each character's choices. Gogol and Moushumi perceive in each other a sameness, a shared background that promises the stability they think they crave. After marrying, Gogol thrives on that stability, but Moushumi quickly becomes unsatisfied. Endemic to The Namesake, connected to its motif of identity, is a look at the question we sometimes forget to ask: why do people act as they do? What motivates one couple to stay together while another couple breaks apart?
Lahiri makes no promises of a happy ending nor assurances that life will work out for the best. Instead, she portrays the mistakes and the memories of two generations with sometimes brutal honesty. Aside from a few setbacks, however, Gogol's life does seem a little uneventful. This is an artifact of Lahiri's focus on his relationships, because Gogol seldom makes many decisions about those until it's too late, at which time he drifts along in life until the next woman comes by. I feel like Lahiri could have done more here, could have explored more, if only she had given Gogol more difficulties.
The narrative style that worked so well for short stories, unfortunately, feels flatter when extended to novel-length. Lahiri writes as if in stream-of-consciousness, except in third person, present tense. Everything is description, with very little dialogue. This allows her to cover plenty of time in a short amount of pages, but it has the disadvantage of feeling more like plot summary than story. As I observe above, we're well acquainted with her characters' thoughts and feelings, but the events of their lives go past sometimes as a montage instead of actual scenes.
But there's a masterful sense of resolution to the ending, happy or not, that makes up for these narrative flaws. As Gogol's mother prepares to leave the house she's lived in for decades, Gogol rediscovers the Nikolai Gogol book his father gave him for his thirteenth birthday. Years after his father's death, he suddenly has the opportunity to get to know the man who named him, as well as the man whose name he bears (no matter what his passport says). It's a final redemption that serves as a powerful reminder: we can never go back and rectify the past, but we can always go forward and remake the future.
I can't be as effusive in my praise for The Namesake as Unaccustomed Earth. There is still much here to enjoy and to experience. Jhumpa Lahiri has a knack for putting to the page observations that ring true, regardless of the culture of one's upbringing. In doing so, she offers a window into other lives, other minds. We're all so different and diverse, so in our quest for identity, inevitably we find different answers. The questions, however, are always the same.