Of course, we can’t ask you to read The Namesake for our One Book, One Watertown program, without reading it ourselves and giving you the scoop.
Firstly, this isn’t a book you can read quickly. You need to sort of ingest it in small bites to properly savor it, so read it while you’re on the bus, before you fall asleep or while you’re waiting in the doctor’s office. Secondly, The Namesake doesn’t follow the conventional pattern of a novel – Jhumpa Lahiri is primarily a short story writer, and her novel shows it. So there aren’t any fabricated action plots or overly dramatic characters. A single chapter is in a way it’s own short story, each one fitting together into a whole to tell the story of the Ganguli family over a period of 32 years.
The book begins when Ashoke Ganguli, after surviving a terrible accident, is driven to expand the boundaries of his life by moving to Boston, Massachusetts. Soon after, he brings a wife with him, and the hazards, misunderstandings, and confusion of the immigrant condition is the foundation of the novel.
While the book is deeply emotional, all the meaning is couched in lavish layers of description; the characters are expressed through the food they eat, the spaces they live in, and the books they read. Gogol, the protagonist for most of the book, is a consummate New Yorker (which is appropriately where he ultimately settles), deeply committed to his own dissatisfaction, and his progression from childhood to adulthood is hampered by his thwarted desire to separate himself from his parent’s (and later, other’s) traditions and expectations. His mother, Ashima, in contrast, proves to be truly adaptive to her strange life, finding little pieces of happiness, and slowly learning how to overcome each obstacle and change she encounters. She is the only other person in the book who has a true character arc. Her husband, Ashoke, dominates the beginning of the book, but soon settles into the background, though his relationship with his son provides most of the emotional conflict of the novel. The daughter, Sonia, is the only member of the family whose perspective we don’t see (even beaten to the spotlight by her sister-in-law) although she too seems to have and interesting story to tell.
The novel is beautifully written, and the prose is bewitching – especially when Lahiri starts describing food! I found some of the characters to be less than fully sympathetic. Gogol tends to whine a bit, and his wife is selfish and unlikeable. But if you enjoy immigrant stories, family histories, memoirs or short stories, I would definitely recommend this book for you.
Dea’s Random Awesomeness Count:
Vampires: 0 (unless maybe you count Gogol’s wife)
Characters named after Russian Authors: 1