Ercildoun's Reviews > The Namesake

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
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Mar 31, 08

Read in March, 2008

Michiko Kakutani begins her review for the New York Times, "Jhumpa Lahiri's quietly dazzling new novel, The Namesake, is that rare thing: an intimate, closely observed family portrait that effortlessly and discreetly unfolds to disclose a capacious social vision."

It's a novel about an immigrant family's imperfect assimilation into America. The story opens in 1968, as Nikhil's pregnant mother is mixing herself a Bengali American concoction of green chili peppers and Planters peanuts. It closes just three years ago, with grown Nikhil -- born in the United States, yet in his way as hyphenated an American as his parents -- at last reconciled to reading a book once given to him by his father, who used to embarrass him.

The book in question is a collection of stories by Nikolai Gogol, after whom Nikhil was christened when his dying Indian great-grandmother's name for him got lost in the mail. An artful image, that: Nikhil's true identity, hung up somewhere between India and the United States.

Nikhil becomes doubly a namesake. At first his father named him "Gogol" as a placeholder, in lieu of the name from the old country that never arrived, and only later "Nikhil," when tradition dictated that a more formal handle was required. The young man comes to hate both names: Nikhil because he's grown used to Gogol, and eventually Gogol, too, because it sounds even more foreign and hard to explain than Nikhil did.

In zeroing in on her hero's name to epitomize his identity crisis, Lahiri is, as usual, right on the money. Names have always been contested territory in immigrant families. Any Ntshona who ever became a Washington, any Fernando who ever went by "Freddy," any Lefkowitzes or Shmulovitzes who became Lakes and Smalls, can take a seat at the Ganguli table and feel right at home.

As Nikhil/Gogol grows up, attends Yale, becomes an architect and gets married, he gradually outgrows his family, or at least thinks he does. Only as he ponders starting a family of his own does Nikhil/Gogol discover that birthrights, unlike short pants, can be handed down but never fully outgrown.

A certain sameness begins to creep in midway through the book -- explicable,

if not completely excusable, as its picaresque hero's compulsion to trace the same neurotic patterns over and over. Several times we watch the oddly friendless Nikhil/Gogol meet the perfect woman, then see it all go comically, excruciatingly wrong.

Only near the end do we see that we've been expertly set up, that what passed for deft if slightly repetitive misadventures may really be the painful,

Portnoyish loneliness of the immigrant's son. As at the end of "The Graduate, " Lahiri gives us a romantic resolution and then leaves the camera running, overshooting her fairy-tale happy ending and granting us something wiser, darker, fuller.

Indirectly, Lahiri may be suggesting that assimilation's hyphen is not so easily straddled. Unlike word choices -- oranges or clementines? -- choices between the old country and the new world don't always stay made.

Reviewed by David Kipen, Chronicle Book Critic
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