Thursday, April 21, 2016

Book 21: The Namesake

"He hates having to live with it, a pet name turned good name, day after day, second after second. He hates seeing it on the brown paper sleeve of the National Geographic subscription his parents got him for his birthday the year before and perpetually listed in the honor roll printed in the town's newspaper. At times his name, an entity shapeless and weightless, manages nevertheless to distress him physically, like the scratchy tag of a shirt his has been forced permanently to wear."

Dates read: February 16-19, 2016

Rating: 9/10

Lists/Awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Time Magazine Best Books of the Year

One of the quirks I've noticed since I've been living in Nevada is how proud people are of how long their family has been in Nevada. If someone is a third, fourth, or fifth generation Nevadan, that will be one of the first things out of their mouths when they meet you. Growing up in Michigan, I never heard someone proudly call themselves a third-generation Michigander. It never would have occurred to anyone to say. Part of it, I think, is the immigrant culture of the other side of the country. Plenty of people aren't even third-generation Americans.

When I went to school at the University of Michigan, it it felt like all the Indian kids knew each other. They had built-in friends as soon as they walked on campus. Good friends, not the "that girl who graduated a few years ahead of me and we were in the National Honors Society together" friends. Their parents knew each other, they would explain. But I didn't really get it...with some exceptions, I wasn't necessarily close to my parents' friends' kids. And then I read The Namesake, and it clicked.

Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake is the story of Indian immigrants and their children in America. It begins when Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli are about to have their first child, recounting a bit of their individual histories in India and how they came to have their marriage arranged. When the boy is born, the pet name his parents give him while waiting for an Indian grandparent to send a letter with his "real name" ends up being recorded on his birth certificate out of confusion. Their child is named Gogol, after a Russian writer who is meaningful to Ashoke. Although his parents eventually settle on Nikhil to be his real name, Gogol sticks until he gets to college. Gogol hates his name, the way it sounds, the way it stamps him as unmistakably "other" in his American life. He changes it legally to Nikhil once he becomes an adult, but it is not quite so easy to deal with the uneasy internal tension between the Indian culture of his parents and the American culture he was raised and lives in, between who he was/is, and who he wants to be.

Although the novel takes turns, illuminating the story briefly through the eyes of Ashima and Ashoke, it mostly follows Gogol/Nikhil as he navigates childhood, college, and his adult relationships (curiously, it never follows his sister Sonia, who remains on the periphery, although it does very briefly follow the woman who becomes Gogol's wife after their marriage). Lahiri's prose is's rich without being flowery, and her words beautifully illustrate the dilemmas the characters face in a way that shows you without telling you. The characters themselves are well-rounded, multi-faceted, and face their entirely normal lives and problems in a way that feels like actual people you might know rather than characters on a page. Lahiri doesn't need to put them through incredible obstacles to show you who they are and why you should care. She just writes them with such humanity that it wouldn't even occur to you not to care. It's a wonderful book and I loved it.

Tell me, blog people tell you how many generations they've lived there in your state, or is that just a Nevada thing?

Note: review cross-posted on Cannonball Read

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