Friday, January 14, 2011

Completed: The Namesake

This morning at the middle school read in, I finished the last 20 pages The Namesake. I'm feeling pretty good about getting that first book out of the way.

I liked this book a lot. As I predicted, Gogol grew up quickly and became the main focus of the book. He was an interesting character to watch "grow up" in the book---going from little boy, to Yale student, to young architect, to grieving son, and to divorced man. I defy anyone to not relate to him and the way he changes in the book. He seems to perfectly encapsulate the arc that everyone goes through on the way from childhood to adulthood.

I mentioned in my first post that several of my coworkers had recommended the book. I was lucky enough this afternoon to talk it through with them again. One especially poignant piece that we all mentioned is Gogol's struggle with living a life that pleases him versus living a life that pleases his parents. In some ways, Gogol is successful. He changes his name, becomes an architect, and builds a life for himself in another city. In other way, Gogol fails. He marries the wrong woman, at least partly because she's Bengali and he knows his mother would approve. It's hard to let go of those parental expectations, and it seems particularly difficult with the added cultural expectations.

(An aside: I'm not surprised that our conversation focused around the parent-child relationship. It seemed our whole office was caught up all week in discussing Amy Chua's article about parenting. Have you read that? No matter what else we discussed, sooner or later it came back to Chinese mothers.)

I liked the way the author portrays the assimilation of the mother, Ashima. When Gogol and his sister were children and young adults, it seemed to them that their parents had never assimilated quite enough. He's vaguely embarrassed by the way they cling to their Bengali ways. But by the end, Gogol is aware that that all the American ways they embraced were done to benefit him and the sister: the Christmas tree and parties were for the children. He's able, finally, to admire how skillfully his parents balanced their Bengali heritage with their American home.

I loved the story. I loved the characters. And yet...the author makes a stylistic choice that I started to really notice about midway through the book. When Gogol's father died suddenly, I found myself feeling...well...unmoved. In other books, I'd weep like a baby when a character died. In The Namesake, I didn't feel that same connection to the characters. There's something about the narration that kept me at a distance. I decided that Lahiri is doing it on purpose. I think she was trying to reinforce how emotionally distant the characters are from each other. In that sense, it's successful because it helped me understand them as people. But as a reader, there were times I just wanted something more.

Perfect example of this is Gogol's experiences with infidelity. He has an affair with a married woman:
When they are together, he is ravenous; it has been a long time since he's made love. And yet he never thinks about seeing her at any other time...Only twice a week, the nights the review class meets, does he look forward to her company. They do not have each other's phone numbers. He does not know exactly where she lives...He likes the limitations. He has never been in a situation with a woman in which so little of him is involved, so little expected" (191).

Compare the above to when he discovers his wife's affair:
"Who's Dimitri?" he'd asked. And then: "Are you having an affair?" The question had sprung out of him, something he had not consciously put together in his mind until that moment. It felt almost comic to him, burning in his throat. But as soon as he asked it, he knew. He felt the chill of her secrecy, numbing him, like a poison spreading quickly through his veins" (282).

Somehow the language is so measured and calm. Even the "poison in his veins" reads more like a cliche, what you'd think to say, of how you think you're supposed to feel rather than the true description of his feelings. I don't know how else to describe it. The characters are so careful about holding their emotions in check. I think the narration masterfully captures that sense of Gogol and his family moving through the universe trying as hard as they can to avoid the big, dramatic emotional excesses of America.

I hope that doesn't sound too negative. Ultimately, I really enjoyed it. Gogol finally seems comfortable with who he really is, of the connection he has to his family, and the gifts that his parents labored so hard to give them.

That's it for The Namesake. Time to look at the rest of my list and see what's next. Have you made any progress?


PS Apparently there's a movie of The Namesake! However, my friend Shahana (who was kind enough to explain the difference between Bengali and Bangladeshi) says that everyone in her family hated the movie because none of the characters are played by Bengalis!

1 comment:

  1. This review is totally great -- I now remember what this book was about! (You know I struggle with that, so thanks for helping me out.)

    I'm so impressed with your teacher-style review -- you actually referenced the book! With, you know, actual quotes! My reviews are going to be like: "Grunt. Drool. Book good." Thank goodness we've got you to add some credibility to this here blog! Heh.

    Glad you liked it -- I'm always hesitant to recommend a book (let alone one with my name written right on it) lest the person blame me for it not being good. But this one? Yeah. It was a good one. Way to kick off the year!

    Meanwhile... I'm still dragging my feet over here, although I have *started* my book. So perhaps I'll give an "in progress" review soon. Stay posted.