Following all the hype (it is a New York Times bestseller after all) I must say I was disappointed by Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake. Although Lahiri definitely knows her subject, an Indian American who grows up between the cultures of his parents and their adopted country, the story is bland and bereft of emotion
The story centers on Gogol, the first child of a Bengali family who is named after the enigmatic Russian author Nikoli Gogol. There’s a reason, but I won’t flesh it out here and neither will the book, not sufficiently anyway. And that is my main complaint about the book. Things happen, people age, tragedy strikes, but it never impacts the audience.
You can’t name a character Gogol and then never make a big deal about it. It’s just not done. It’s like naming someone Marie Antoinette and not blinking when she offers to serve cake to peasants. I digress. The Namesake mostly follows Gogol as he goes grows up with a few brief, but interesting forays into the life of his parents.
In fact, they were far more interesting than the protagonist, especially his mother Ashima as she climates and refuses to acclimate to America. Other than occasional peaks into Ashima’s life we’re stuck with this guy who never seems to feel much, to have any particular goals, or to progress.
He’s just there. He goes to college, has romances with this girl and that one, graduates, and gets a good job, blah blah blah. There is no passion to anything. I consider this to be Lahiri’s fundamental mistake.
So caught up is she as an insider into the Indian American experience that she forgets to make us care about Gogol. Tripping along through life, he feels what Lahiri tells us he feels. The problem is that she never makes us believe her and with no evidence to support these assertions about Gogol’s character, he ends up a faceless Indian American stereotype.
Actress Sarita Choudhury’s, who is half-Bengali, does a good job in her reading of The Namesake. She speaks in an Indian accent for Gogol’s parents, which brings attention to their distinct experiences.