Lahiri probes the immigrant identity in her first novel
Much has happened in the life of Jhumpa Lahiri since she was awarded the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, an exquisite collection of short stories whose central characters are Indian immigrants to America.
In early 2001, Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias Bush, a journalist with Time magazine, in a traditional Bengali wedding ceremony in Kolkata (or Calcutta). A little more than a year later, the couple had their first child, a son. And shortly after that, Lahiri received a Guggenheim fellowship and completed work on her fine first novel, The Namesake, which is being released this month.
So maybe it's no surprise that Lahiri says winning the Pulitzer has had no real impact on her. "It doesn't affect what I do," she says during a call to her home in New York. "It doesn't really affect how I work." She says she continues to maintain her long-time practice of writing in the mornings. "Having recently had a child has made things a little more challenging," she says. "But things are working out pretty well and my life has moved smoothly into this new phase of motherhood."
In conversation, Lahiri is poised, friendly, self-deprecating and slightly reserved. "I'm not a very good close reader of my own work," she demurs when asked to explain the meaning of an incident near the end of The Namesake. "I look for meaning in other people's work, not my own."
This probably isn't as startling as it first sounds. After all, the experience of writing fiction is certainly different from the experience of reading it. And Lahiri says writing is always "very hard" for her. "There are other things that I think of as pleasures in my life, like eating a good meal, being with someone I love, or seeing a beautiful piece of art. Writing is work. I tend to doubt it all the way through. But I know that if I don't write, I feel like something is not right inside of me and with the world. Writing is a vital part of my existence and the way I think about and experience life. It's all very connected to my well-being as a person."
None of Lahiri's doubts and difficulties with writing are evident in The Namesake, a remarkably assured first novel. Readers will find here the same elegant, deceptively simple prose that garnered so much praise for her short stories. Here too are many of the familiar themes—alienation, loss, connection, regeneration—that Lahiri explored so deftly and with such subtlety and clear-sighted compassion in her story collection. But in The Namesake, Lahiri has "more room to poke around in the lives of the characters and their backgrounds." The result is a seemingly quiet, almost undramatic novel whose characters and incidents continue to leap freshly to mind weeks after reading it.
The Namesake tells the story of Gogol Ganguli, the American-born son of Ashoke Ganguli, who arrives in Massachusetts from India in the late 1960s as an engineering student, and Ashima, Ashoke's wife through an arranged marriage. Gogol, named by his father in honor of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, struggles to transform himself and escape the traditions of his family and the community of Indian immigrants to which his family belongs. Part of Gogol's escape plan involves changing his name.
"The original spark for the novel was to write about a boy with a peculiar name, a name that sort of plagued him," Lahiri says. "In the process of writing the book, I realized that it was important and inevitable for him to accept his name, to realize that there is never a way to shed what is given to you by your parents. The book isn't so much about names per se. It's more about what we inherit from our parents—certain ideas, certain values, certain genes—the whole complex set of things that everyone gets from their parents and the way that, no matter how much we create our own lives and choose what we want out of life, it's very difficult to escape our origins."
Gogol and the other characters of The Namesake come fully to life through the slow accretion of detail. As readers of her short stories know, Lahiri is an exceptional observer of human behavior. She writes, for example, with remarkable insight about something as seemingly routine as people preparing and eating food.
"I like cooking and eating all different kinds of food," Lahiri says. "And I come from a very food-oriented family. Like most children of immigrants, I'm aware of how important food becomes for foreigners who are trying to deal with life in a new world. Food is a very deep part of people's lives and it has incredible meaning beyond the obvious nutritional aspects. My parents have given up so many basic things coming here from the life they once knew—family, love, connections—and food is one thing that they've really held onto."
Lahiri was born in London and raised in Rhode Island. Her father, a university librarian, and her mother, a school teacher, are originally from Kolkata. "A lot of the novel rose out of my experience of growing up," Lahiri says, "and while The Namesake is not explicitly autobiographical, it sticks pretty closely to the general way I was raised. I drew not only from my own experiences but more widely from experiences of the children of my parents' Bengali friends in creating Gogol's character."
But Lahiri resists any idea that she's "representing a group. I would never claim to be doing that. These characters are a very few examples of the range of experience out there. I find it gratifying just to work with words, with language, to work through memories, experiences, observations, imagined things and situations, all of that combined, to try to make things come to life on the page."
Which is exactly what Jhumpa Lahiri succeeds in doing in The Namesake.
Alden Mudge is a writer in Oakland, California. Copyright 2003 BookPage Reviews
BookPage Reviews 2004 September
In this best-selling follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri continues her insightful exploration of the immigrant experience. During the late 1960s, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli leave India and settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he works as a professor of engineering and she gives birth to their son, Gogol. Named after the famous Russian writer, Gogol grows up to become a brilliant student, graduating from Yale and embarking on a career as an architect. Yet, despite his successes, he never quite fits in. Ill at ease with his heritage, he fails to connect with anyone until his mother sets him up on a date with a young Indian-American woman who—like Gogol—is ambivalent about her past. Writing with a keen eye for authentic detail, Lahiri has produced a provocative novel about tradition, cultural inheritance and the burden of history. A reading group guide is available online at www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com. Copyright 2004 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2003 June #1
A first novel from Pulitzer-winner Lahiri (stories: Interpreter of Maladies, 1999) focuses on the divide between Indian immigrants and their Americanized children.The action takes place in and around Boston and New York between 1968 and 2000. As it begins, Ashoke Ganguli and his pregnant young wife Ashima are living in Cambridge while he does research at MIT. Their marriage was arranged in Calcutta: no problem. What is a problem is naming their son. Years before in India, a book by Gogol had saved Ashoke's life in a train wreck, so he wants to name the boy Gogol. The matter becomes contentious and is hashed out at tedious length. Gogol grows to hate his name, and at 18 the Beatles-loving Yale freshman changes it officially to Nikhil. His father is now a professor outside Boston; his parents socialize exclusively with other middle-class Bengalis. The outward-looking Gogol, however, mixes easily with non-Indian Americans like his first girlfriend Ruth, another Yalie. Though Lahiri writes with painstaking care, her dry synoptic style fails to capture the quirkiness of relationships. Many scenes cry out for dialogue that would enable her characters to cut loose from a buttoned-down world in which much is documented but little revealed. After an unspecified quarrel, Ruth exits. Gogol goes to work as an architect in New York and meets Maxine, a book editor who seems his perfect match. Then his father dies unexpectedly--the kind of death that fills in for lack of plot--and he breaks up with Maxine, who like Ruth departs after a reported altercation (nothing verbatim). Girlfriend number three is an ultrasophisticated Indian academic with as little interest in Bengali culture as Gogol; these kindred spirits marry, but the restless Moushumi proves unfaithful. The ending finds the namesake alone, about to read the Russian Gogol for the first time.A disappointingly bland follow-up to a stellar story collection. Author tour Copyright Kirkus 2003 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2003 May #2
Freshly arrived from India in 1960s Cambridge, MA, the Gangulis are so culture-shocked that they name their firstborn Gogol. This first novel hardly feels like a debut; Lahiri won a rafter of prizes (including a Pulitzer) for her story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews July #1
This first novel is an Indian American saga, covering several generations of the Ganguli family across three decades. Newlyweds Ashoke and Ashima leave India for the Boston area shortly after their traditional arranged marriage. The young husband, an engineering graduate student, is ready to be part of U.S. culture, but Ashima, disoriented and homesick, is less taken with late-Sixties America. She develops ties with other Bengali expatriates, forming lifelong friendships that help preserve the old ways in a new country. When the first Ganguli baby arrives, he is named Gogol in commemoration of a strange, life-saving encounter with the Russian writer's oeuvre. As Gogol matures, his unusual name proves to be a burden, though no more than the tensions and confusions of growing up as a first-generation American. This poignant treatment of the immigrant experience is a rich, stimulating fusion of authentic emotion, ironic observation, and revealing details. Readers who enjoyed the author's Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, will not be disappointed. Recommended for public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/03.]-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2003 July #1
One of the most anticipated books of the year, Lahiri's first novel (after 1999's Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies) amounts to less than the sum of its parts. Hopscotching across 25 years, it begins when newlyweds Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli emigrate to Cambridge, Mass., in 1968, where Ashima immediately gives birth to a son, Gogol-a pet name that becomes permanent when his formal name, traditionally bestowed by the maternal grandmother, is posted in a letter from India, but lost in transit. Ashoke becomes a professor of engineering, but Ashima has a harder time assimilating, unwilling to give up her ties to India. A leap ahead to the '80s finds the teenage Gogol ashamed of his Indian heritage and his unusual name, which he sheds as he moves on to college at Yale and graduate school at Columbia, legally changing it to Nikhil. In one of the most telling chapters, Gogol moves into the home of a family of wealthy Manhattan WASPs and is initiated into a lifestyle idealized in Ralph Lauren ads. Here, Lahiri demonstrates her considerable powers of perception and her ability to convey the discomfort of feeling "other" in a world many would aspire to inhabit. After the death of Gogol's father interrupts this interlude, Lahiri again jumps ahead a year, quickly moving Gogol into marriage, divorce and a role as a dutiful if a bit guilt-stricken son. This small summary demonstrates what is most flawed about the novel: jarring pacing that leaves too many emotional voids between chapters. Lahiri offers a number of beautiful and moving tableaus, but these fail to coalesce into something more than a modest family saga. By any other writer, this would be hailed as a promising debut, but it fails to clear the exceedingly high bar set by her previous work. Agent, Eric Simonoff. (Sept. 16) Forecast: Lahiri's previous collection is beloved by booksellers and readers alike, and despite the likely lukewarm reviews, orders and sales are sure to soar for this one. Lahiri, who appeared awkward working the crowd at BEA, may take some time to warm up to audiences on the road. Foreign rights sold in 12 countries. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2003 November
Adult/High School-A novel about assimilation and generational differences. Gogol is so named because his father believes that sitting up in a sleeping car reading Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat" saved him when the train he was on derailed and most passengers perished. After his arranged marriage, the man and his wife leave India for America, where he eventually becomes a professor. They adopt American ways, yet all of their friends are Bengalis. But for young Gogol and his sister, Boston is home, and trips to Calcutta to visit relatives are voyages to a foreign land. He finds his strange name a constant irritant, and eventually he changes it to Nikhil. When he is a senior at Yale, his father finally tells him the story of his name. Moving to New York to work as an architect, he meets Maxine, his first real love, but they separate after his father dies. Later, his mother reintroduces him to a Bengali woman, and they fall in love and marry, but their union does not last. The tale comes full circle when the protagonist, home for a Bengali Christmas, rediscovers his father's gift of Gogol's short stories. This novel will attract not just teens of other cultures, but also readers struggling with the challenges of growing up and tugging at family ties.-Molly Connally, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.