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*****= An all-time favorite
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*        = Good, with reservations


***The Namesake

by Jhumpa Lahiri

Reviewed September 15, 2003.
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2003.  291 pages.

When I open a novel and discover that it’s written in present tense, I often close the book and turn it back in on the spot.  I know that many good books are written that way, but it’s a form I’m not particularly fond of.  In the case of The Namesake, I’d heard such good things about the book and about the author, who won the Pulitzer Prize with her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories, that I decided to plough ahead.

There’s no question that Jhumpa Lahiri is an excellent writer.  The Namesake tells the story of a Bengali family who move from Calcutta to America.  The mother, Ashima, never manages to feel at home in America, but she does make a life for herself and her children there.  When their son is born, they plan to do as all Bengali families and give him a carefully chosen “good name” to be chosen by Ashima’s grandmother.  There is no rush for this choice, so they don’t worry at first when the letter is lost in the mail.

Unfortunately, the American hospital officials won’t send the baby home without a name on his birth certificate.  The father, Ashoke, quickly chooses what he believes is the perfect pet name—Gogol, after Nikolai Gogol, the Russian writer whose book Ashoke feels has saved his life.

The book continues as Gogol’s story, brought up surrounded by Bengali customs and culture, but living in America and wanting to fit in as an American.  He hates his name that no one can pronounce or understand.  When he finally changes it, he has to deal with questions of identity.  Who is he, really?  Do the people using his new name really know who he is?

This book is a meditative, quiet novel.  The author is skilled at putting you into the mind and heart of her characters, these people living in America but with a different cultural background.  As I read, I expected to give it four stars, but this is a sad story with a persistent melancholy thread, and I didn’t enjoy it as thoroughly as I had hoped to.


Copyright © 2003 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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