My series on popular backlist titles continues with The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, published in 2004.
This was a treasure that I picked up at my grad school’s library sale. I got this plus two other paperbacks for $1.00. Their loss, my win. There is no shortage of praise for this novel, and I don’t think I can say anything about it that hasn’t been said before. All I can say is that I wish I had read it years ago.
The Namesake is the story of a man’s relationship with his name. The American-born son of Indian immigrants, Gogol Ganguli receives his birth name by accident. A mix-up with his extended family and a misunderstanding of Bangladeshi culture result in his pet name becoming his legal name. The book describes what Gogol’s name means to him at different periods in his life. As a child it is a comfort to him, and he resists whenever anyone tries to call him by a different name. As an adolescent it is a burden, and in his mind singles him out for ridicule since it is neither American nor Bangladeshi. it isn’t until he reaches adulthood that Gogol truly understands why his parents chose the name, and he comes to gain a deeper understanding of how his family have shaped the man he was to become.
This is a rich, beautiful, and rewarding story. Even if you can’t personally relate to the immigrant experience, you may still find something in this book that resonates with you. Gogol reminded me of my husband, who also dislikes his birth name and wants his friends to call him by a chosen nickname. The book also explores the meaning and intimacy of a pet name, something that I had always taken for granted but now have a better appreciation for. Rarely do I call my husband by his name, even his nickname; instead I usually call him by a private pet name reserved only for me. His legal name, (his “good” name as it is called in the book) is only for work and for public functions. Think about how you interract with your significant other and you will understand what I mean. But with all of these various names, my husband is still the same person, no matter what he is called. Through the events of his life, Gogol also makes this discovery.
I won’t go on and on about how amazing this book is, because the world already knows. All I can say is that if you have heard of it but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, please read it. You may find that you can relate to it the way I did. It really is a modern classic, and you won’t soon forget it.