Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel, THE NAMESAKE, begins with a recipe. In her small apartment kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ashima Ganguli is mixing together Rice Krispies, peanuts, diced onion, salt, lemon juice and chili peppers in "a humble approximation" of a snack she used to buy in Calcutta.
For Ashima, who is newly married and nine months pregnant, who misses her family and feels thoroughly alone in New England in the late 1960s, everything in America is "a humble approximation" of her life in India, which she left behind when she married Ashoke, an engineering student at MIT. For Lahiri, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her debut short story collection INTERPRETER OF MALADIES, this revelatory detail is typical: refined, effortless and graceful, it seems obvious only because it's so profound. The rest of the novel follows this tack, locating small truths and ironies in mundane, often overlooked objects like food and, as the title suggests, names.
While mixing her snack, Ashima goes into labor and the next day her first child is born --- it's a boy. Such a joyous occasion for Ashima and Ashoke is nonetheless complicated by the choice of names. Bengalis, Lahiri explains, have not one but two names --- a pet name used by family and friends, and a good name by which he or she is known to the world. "Pet names are a persistent remnant of childhood, a reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated," she says. "Good names tend to represent dignified and enlightened qualities" and appear on diplomas, awards and certificates.
Following Bengali custom, the choice of names is left to Ashima's aging grandmother, who posts a letter containing one name for a girl and another for a boy. But the letter never arrives and grasping for choices Ashoke chooses Gogol, a name with much greater significance than merely that of his favorite writer.
Lahiri introduces the Gangulis in such a way that it feels impossible not to be enticed into their world and demand to know their journeys, hardships and fates. After confidently setting these characters in motion, she traces their lives and the repercussions of Gogol's name through three decades, knowingly evoking the compromises and sacrifices they make to adjust to life in America. Throughout the novel, her prose is consistently somber and refined, subtle and subdued, but always pointed and revealing. Likewise the novel's pace arcs gracefully, a model of writerly patience.
But what makes THE NAMESAKE so enthralling and so richly readable is the care with which Lahiri recreates the ever-changing America where the Gangulis live. She populates her scenes and descriptions with a multitude of well-observed specifics --- at times far more details than necessary for verisimilitude, but never once threatening to overwhelm the story.
More crucially, Lahiri writes about Indian and American cultures with the same generosity of detail. She evokes the suburbia of Gogol's adolescence through his beloved Beatles albums and the Olan Mills school pictures as confidently as she describes his adulthood in New York through Ikea furniture and Dean & DeLuca gift baskets. Her descriptions of Ashima's painstaking preparations of mincemeat croquettes are as assured as her descriptions of spaghetti alla vongole at a dinner party.
Such a range of details may not seem overly significant, but Lahiri uses these differences in cultures and cuisines to keep the reader aware of the growing rift between these two worlds, of how far Gogol has moved from his origins and of how strongly those Bengali ties hold him in ways that he only gradually begins to realize.
Ultimately, there is something culinary about THE NAMESAKE, something complex, refined and robust in its blends of ingredients, something substantial and nourishing in its interplay of ideas and characters. This is a novel to savor, whose taste will linger in the reader's mind long after the last course is eaten, the dishes washed and put away, and the book placed aside on the shelf.
Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on May 25, 2012
- Publication Date: December 11, 2006
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Mariner Books
- ISBN-10: 0618733965
- ISBN-13: 9780618733965