The Namesake: A Review

So I finally finished The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I had adored her collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies which won the Pulitzer Prize and so when The Namesake was chosen as my book club book I was thrilled. Lucky for me last month was busy for all of my friends as it was for me, so the book club was delayed. Last night I read the final page and closed the book. Does anyone else find it extremely satisfying closing a book? It feels like you've just accomplished something.

The book started in a scene, but did not remain in scene for the majority of the book, which is my main complaint of the book. It seemed to want to summarize the life of one of the main characters, Gogol, in detail and rather then illustrating it through a few select scenes, Lahiri seemed to rush through them all in summary after summary. The psychic distance in this book was distracting, I felt like I was reading someone's family history rather than a novel. Then there was the whole issue of "the Namesake" which titles the book. As the whole plot behind this unraveled I was unimpressed and unmoved. It didn't feel as significant as I feel the author was trying to make it. I wasn't really sure why it was so significant, I understood what she was trying to do, but it just didn't work for me and came off flat. Perhaps it wasn't developed enough. There were a couple of key characters, like Gogol's sister, that I felt were inconsistent and under developed and overall I was at a loss of the underlying meaning of the novel. Usually by the end you can get a sense of the theme of the book, the reason why it was written, what it's all supposed to mean, etc. I think I know what the author was attempting to make the underlying meaning, something about Gogol accepting his heritage symbolized by him accepting his name, but I don't feel that this was developed enough and so it doesn't really work in the end.

Despite these misgivings about the book, I did love reading about the culture and I really loved some of the characters (like Ashima!) There was some gorgeous descriptions of the Indian culture that really made me feel like I understood it intimately. I loved the little idiosyncrasies that Lahiri included about the mind-set and the beliefs of the Indian culture and how well she illustrates the fact that the parents, whom immigrated from India, always felt like America was a foreign place and never got over that. She also illustrated that awkward place for the children where they don't quite feel like they can fit into both worlds, the American and the Indian, especially growing up. To fit in to the American world with his friends, Gogol pretty much avoids any discussion or reference to his Indian life, his visits to Calcutta, their traditions. However, this makes him too American for his parents. It's a struggle I understand very well, growing up with a Chinese mother, and I felt that Lahiri demonstrated this perfectly.

Overall I give the novel 3 stars (out of 5) because while its construction was something of a mess and the psychic distance was too distant for me to feel connected to the book or "in" the book as I like to say (you know, when you feel like you're actually there in the book with the characters), the culture is rich and the characters are likeable. My suggestion, and you'll Rarely hear this suggestion from me, is go see the movie instead of reading the book, which after running through some film festivals, I believe comes out March, 2007. I think that the distance that is in the novel will be erased in a movie and that the plot will probably be shortened and tightened, hopefully making the theme more significant and meaningful and overall I think the culture will be beautifully portrayed in the movie.

Next I'm working on the novels Crime and Punishment (I know, still reading it, I literally have not read for pleasure for almost a month!) and The Prestige by Christopher Priest, which I've heard is excellent and dark. I wanted to read it before I watched the movie, which I'm very eager to watch, and also the novel will stretch me a bit as I don't often read Fantasy novels, though I have enjoyed Fantasy novels immensely in the past, it just isn't my usual genre that I read from. Other than working on my applications for Graduate School, I think I'll have plenty of time to read! I'm so excited, reading is one of the best therapies for me. No wonder I was going crazy last month...


Patry Francis said...

I read this when it first came out and had pretty much the same reaction. It was interesting enough that I was never tempted to put it aside, but the characters didn't go deep enough to ring true to me.

mai wen said...

I agree, I wasn't ever tempted to stop reading it, but it felt so surface level that I really didn't get deep into, I wasn't dying to read the next page.

I'm hoping the movie will be good because I think what the author was trying to do sounds really interesting.


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