Book Club Reflection: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

15 Dec

To round out my week of ‘The Namesake,’ I’m ready to share our book club discussion of the novel. If you missed the other posts, you can read my opinion on the book and the movie in these links.

Everyone in our group enjoyed this book, which doesn’t happen very often. The last book I remember us all liking was The Light Between Oceans. We tend to have very eclectic tastes.

Lahiri had a very descriptive style. Granted, most authors describe things in detail, but her way of being descriptive of small details and still keeping a relatively high-level narrative was distinct enough that we all noticed and commented on her abilities. I think it’s a real gift of hers.

Lahiri herself was born in England (the reason she was eligible for the Man Booker prize in 2013) though she lived the majority of her life in the US and says she feels American. Like Gogol, she remembers visiting Calcutta during her childhood and learning about her Bengali culture.

I had never heard of Gogol before this book and in truth, I have no interest in reading any of his work. (Fun fact, we have the same birthday!) No one in the group had read any of his work, but some had heard of him before. I like that Lahiri chose a real though not very popular writer for this work. It makes the name mean a lot more and the characters seem even more tangible.

One thing a fellow reader noticed that I’d totally missed was that everything seemed to happen on a train! Ashoke’s accident, Gogol meeting his first girlfriend, Ruth, and him finding out about Moushumi’s affair. All on trains. I guess I would think that this has to do with travel and having a journey toward learning something or discovering something about yourself. But that sounds like high school English teachers reading too far into a book. Or maybe my teacher was right about metaphors.

Gogol’s name seemed to follow him his entire life. he hated his name and wished it wasn’t his and toward the end, seems to wish he had kept it as it connected him to his father. Even after he legally changed his name, the narrative still referred to him as Gogol. We felt that was a reflection of how he viewed himself. Our group suspected he might change his name back after finding out about his father’s accident, but he didn’t seem to have any inclination toward it.

We felt that the name Nikhil was a mask he could wear that helped him blend in with white America. I think having a Russian name was confusing for him because he wanted to have a name that gave him an identity and his name clashed with his ethnic identity and his surroundings. Being Nikhil, he could identify himself as Bengali-American and this gave him confidence. He was confident enough to be Maxine’s boyfriend and leave home for school and work.

One of our discussion questions asked if we think he would have been happier if he were born with a ‘good’ name. We couldn’t say conclusively that he would be happier, but he wouldn’t have worried so much about how others would perceive his name.

We talked about why Ashoke keep his accident a secret from Gogol for so long. I thought he might tell when Gogol wanted to change his name in an attempt to explain why it was so important. We thought it was likely because he wanted to save his children from knowing about his pain. As children, we see our parents as superheroes who are incapable of being hurt. Telling his children too young would have shattered this image for Gogol and Sonia. We did think that betrayal was a bit of an over-reaction on Gogol’s behalf as a result of hearing the story.

Gogol’s life became very ‘anglicized’ and American from a cultural standpoint. He never spoke his parents language and for most of his life, he rejected anything that reminded him of his culture. It seemed that his parents were slightly disappointed in this for a long time and only after the kids grew up were the parents more accepting. Ashima encourages Gogol to make amends with Max at one point and the family is very accepting of Sonia’s non-Bengali husband. After all, Gogol’s ‘perfect’ Indian wedding ended terribly.

Gogol seems to have no luck when it comes to a lasting relationship. He was with Max for a long time, but decided he wanted something more in line with his culture. Then he had Moushumi and she wanted something less in line with her culture and parents. Our group felt that she wasn’t mature enough to be married from the information we have about her and her past with men. There was no mutual ‘finding’ in these characters; they couldn’t find each other at the right times. Gogol has picked the wrong people until the end of the book; nothing’s making him happy.

Mo seemed to seek out her affair, which is one reason our group didn’t think she was mature enough to be in a lasting relationship. At the first signs of her and Gogol disagreeing on something or her feeling restrained by him, she sought out Dimitri; recognizing him by his handwriting. She seemed to have developed this pattern of behavior when she lived in Paris. She didn’t learn how to be in a steady relationship and getting married was no way to figure it out.

One of our questions was how the story would have differed if the people were from less affluent background. We’re not sure the story would have existed in that circumstance. The reason Ashoke came to America is because he had the means to get to the US. The same goes for all the Bengali families, including Moushumi’s. They had the education and money to attend school and be trained for high-paying jobs. Because Gogol enjoyed this lifestyle, he met Max. Without money, the story might have happened in India and that would have been quite a different story altogether.

We were all frustrated with Gogol when he was dating Max and seemingly replaced his family with hers. He was ignoring his mother and father, hiding among Max’s family. He seemed so interested in her family and learning to become a part of it that he didn’t have the energy to devote time to his own family. Many of the people in my group have children of their own and they gave me the great nugget of wisdom that kids don’t realize how much their parents care about them until they have children of their own and can realize how strong the love between parent and child is.

Gogol seemed so disinterested in visiting his family in Calcutta that someone asked if we thought he would take his family to India to see relatives. He was so miserable when they would go visit that we doubted it, but remembered his change of heart after his father died and he was more than willing to go spread his father’s ashes. The sad truth is that Gogol won’t have much family left in India that he knows well and can go back to visit. Most of them have passed away. Ashima lamented this when describing how the party to meet them at the airport grew smaller and smaller each time they’d go back. Even if he wants to go back, there may not be anyone who remembers him well enough to welcome him in.

I really really really loved this book and it was awesome to discuss it with some other bibliophiles who enjoyed it as much! If I can get my hands on a copy of Lahiri’s other novel, I’ll be sure to snatch it up.

ALSO! If you’re interested in joining my on-line book club, please take the time to vote below for our next selection. You can read more about past Read-Alongs here.

 

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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4 Responses to “Book Club Reflection: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri”

  1. Cynthia December 16, 2014 at 2:43 PM #

    I recently read that book as well. Honestly I wasn’t a fan of the writing style. It seemed more like a summary of stuff that happened instead of a narrative. It was just an okay read for me.

    Like

    • Sam December 16, 2014 at 3:12 PM #

      The style of an author can really make or break a book so it makes sense that the book didn’t work for you if the style kept you from getting into it. Do you think you would have enjoyed the story if someone else had written it?

      Like

  2. Pat Thompson October 16, 2016 at 2:32 PM #

    I have just finished reading this book for the third time and love it even more each time and see new things each time. We will be discussing it at our book club tomorrow evening. I enjoyed reading about your meeting and hope you don’t mind if I quote some of you points. We are a mixed group, English ,Irish, American and Australian living in Belgium .

    Like

    • Sam October 16, 2016 at 5:45 PM #

      That’s awesome! I’m glad you enjoy the book so much. I bought another of her titles because I enjoyed this one. I hope you have a great book club discussion and feel free to share my group’s comments. Sounds like a great group. Happy reading!

      Like

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