Reading this book, I can’t help to be reminded of an Asian-American friend that I knew when I was a graduate student in an upstate New York university. I lived with several other foreign students from Asia in an off campus apartment, and by the end of my first semester, we found ourselves a nucleus for a small circle of variously hyphenated Asian Americans. Perhaps some of them were simply drawn to people who look like them, regardless of the differences in our backgrounds --- we were Indonesian, Cambodian, South Korean, Vietnamese and Hong Kong Chinese --- people who wouldn't have been drawn to each other had we lived in our native continent. Soon, we began to perceive that each of our new friends had some sort of identity issue going on. I wouldn’t call it a crisis, since some of them seemed to breeze through it with little difficulty. But for others, especially our Cambodian-American friend --- let’s call her Nina --- it was particularly acute. Too little to remember much of her homeland when she left it, Nina felt that she was constantly torn between the culture of her non-English speaking mother and the country that gave her family asylum and a chance at a new life. Her brother was a juvenile delinquent, something that she tellingly attributed to “cultural confusion”. In contrast, she did well for herself, attending an Ivy League college on full scholarship. Her English was flawless, and she dated a white all-American guy --- yet somehow she always felt out of tune. Nina was neither fish nor fowl, and she was painfully aware of it. She confessed that she liked hanging around us because she desperately wanted to understand Asian culture; to hear the language spoken, to eat the food, to feel the humid monsoon --- all without leaving the safety of her adopted American home. We sensed that she was somewhat fragile, and that much of this fragility came from the dual identity that she bore.
Of course, this is the classic immigrant’s theme, one that has been played out over and over again in American fiction, of which The Namesake is a worthy addition. I would not say that there is anything new or profound in the story, which is actually quite predictable, but Lahiri tells it in such a fluid, elegant prose that one can’t help to read well into the wee hours, absorbed in the meticulously observed, if occasionally repetitive, details of the various characters’ lives. She might not have reached the heights attained by the classic Russian novels that are often referred to in the novel, but she wrote with a clear-eyed yet compassionate insight, and the end result is both emotionally resonant and genuinely moving.
One star deducted for the saggy middle when the titular character began to engage in pointless, dead-end romances that seem to revolve around dinner parties in which the entire catalogue of Dean and Deluca gourmet delicacies are conspicuously consumed. Yes, I know that it’s supposed to highlight the contrast between Gogol’s humble immigrant roots and the profligate habits of posh, sophisticated New Yorkers, but even fancy oysters and artisan cheeses get old after a while.