The Namesake

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is an intricately detailed account of the Ganguli family from Calcutta and their struggles as an immigrant family adjusting to a new culture, to their new life in America. The story focuses on their firstborn, a son whom they named Gogol after the father’s favorite author. The name “Gogol” comes to represent to the boy everything that separates him from the mainstream of the America around him as he grows up. He hates the name, and ultimately changes it. The struggles he has with his name reflects the difficulties he has in coming to terms with family expectations versus his need for independence, with understanding his cultural heritage versus his need to identify himself as an American, and with his growing understanding and acceptance of his parents and the choices they made.

I found this book to be a fascinating account of cultural immersion. The descriptions of Gogol’s mother during her first years in America were poignant and very honestly described the experience of culture shock, the isolation of the new immigrant, the longing for “home,” and the slow adjustment to and assimilation of the new culture.

Gogol’s journey is also a very honest account of growing up as “second generation ” in an immigrant family, more American than his parents, but still perceived as “different” by American friends and colleagues. His struggles were not resolved by the end of the book, which I feel once again is an honest portrayal of that experience. Gogol will continue to struggle with defining his cultural identity throughout the rest of his life.

This was the third book I read for Callista’s Book-to-Movie challenge, and I’m looking forward to watching the movie version on DVD this week. We didn’t see it in the theaters because I wanted to read the book first. I’m glad I waited, but now I’m very anxious to see how the film compares to the book. I’m sure the film will add a wonderfully rich visual experience to my reading of the story of this Bengali family.

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9 thoughts on “The Namesake

  1. Kay

    I need to read this book. I have a coworker who is from India and she said that this book is her life basically. Actually, I have coworkers from three different countries (India, Czech Republic and Brazil) and also one that is second-generation Chinese in US. I suspect that their experiences would have lots of similarities. I’ll get to this one at some point and then I also want to see the movie. Thanks for your review, Robin!

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  2. Robin

    Hi Kay. When I went to Argentina as an exchange student 40 years ago, I went through every stage of culture shock to the final adjustment and assimilation of the culture. It was different, however, knowing that I would be going back home at the end of the year. But that year has given me a sensitivity to others going through that kind of experience, so I was very impressed with the honest portrayal of that very painful and powerful process in this story.

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  3. Sam Houston

    Thanks for the review. This books sounds fascinating and it’s always fun to have a movie version to follow up a recently read book. I’ll have to look for these.

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  4. jenclair

    I’ve only heard good things about this one, but still have not gotten around to reading it.

    Robin, as an exchange student, you really do have a more realistic view of having to deal with culture shock. I’ve taught many exchange students and quite a few ESL student who, in spite of their languages difficulties, were placed in enriched English classes. Can you imagine trying to read Shakespeare with only a partial grasp of the language?

    The determination of some of those students still amazes me.

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  5. Tara

    I’ve been meaning to read this for years. I really enjoyed the author’s first book which is a collection of short stories – I would recommend it. I’d like to see the film as well – I wonder which I’ll accomplish first?

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  6. Robin

    Hi Sam, it really was an interesting and very honest story. I’m looking forward to the movie.

    Hi jenclair, the book has been on my TBR list for a long time. I’m glad I finally got to it, and I’m glad I read it before seeing the movie.
    If you’ve worked with ESL students, then I’m sure you know how powerful Culture Shock can be. It was a life-changing experience for me, going through every single stage of that process. It was definitely one of the most difficult, most rewarding, and most formative experiences of my life.

    Hi Tara, I’d love to read her other book now that I’ve read this one. She’s very talented. I know I’d enjoy it.

    Thanks, Callista. I’ll post a wrap up to the challenge soon.

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  7. Matt

    I’m glad you enjoy reading The Namesake. It’s one of my favorite books of the year. It has such staying power that I often drift back to the plot as it reminds of my own experience as an immigrant.

    The Namesake portrays an immigrant family at its most frail and vulnerable, making the best out of what it was missing for the sake of their children. It silently praises the strength that the family cultivated through the tangled ties and the clash between generations.

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  8. Robin

    Hi Matt,
    It really is a lovely, poignant book, and I agree with you that it has “staying power.” I keep thinking about it, and I’m sure I’ll drift back to it quite often, too.

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