From the crisp and vivid first page, Jhumpa Lahiri grounds her beautiful debut novel, The Namesake, in a super-precise social and physical reality: It’s 1968 and young Ashima Ganguli, homesick for Calcutta, goes into labor while preparing a spicy puffed rice and peanut mix in her overheated Cambridge, Mass., kitchen. Ashima’s Peg-Board of utensils is ”slightly coated with grease,” and her MIT-grad-student husband, Ashoke, toils at a card-table desk. A son is delivered hours later and Ashoke names him Gogol. Seven years previously, he’d been reading a book by Nikolai Gogol on a train when it derailed, killing everyone sleeping around him. He credits the Russian author with saving his life.
Lahiri was just 32 when her immaculately written first collection of stories, ”Interpreter of Maladies,” won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. ”The Namesake,” the saga of the Ganguli clan in America, is a bigger, untidier, and ultimately more involving book, tracing the gentle arc of Gogol’s rejection of and reconciliation with his family. As a child torn between unassimilated parents who ”live the lives of the extremely aged, those for whom everyone they once knew and loved is lost” and the easy comforts of late-20th-century suburbia, Gogol agitates for Hamburger Helper and Shake ‘n Bake chicken. At Bengali gatherings, he heads off with the other kids to watch ”Fantasy Island.” Needless to say, he hates his name, ”that it is neither Indian nor American but of all things Russian.” Plus – and the issue dogs him for years – he ”cannot imagine saying, ‘Hi, it’s Gogol’ under potentially romantic circumstances.”
Like literary outsiders from Gatsby to Portnoy, Gogol falls for the wrong girl for the wrong reasons. He moves to Manhattan and, to Ashima’s dismay, takes up with Maxine Ratliff, a casually privileged New Yorker who ”has never wished she were anyone other than herself, raised in any other place, in any other way.” Maxine lives with her parents in a spectacular town house where every exquisite object reflects their cultured tastes and offhand self-confidence. It’s the lifestyle that seduces Gogol, and Lahiri lets the accoutrements do a bit too much of the talking. Little more than symbols, the Ratliffs come alive through the Lapsang Souchong tea they sip out of heavy white mugs, the British television they watch at night, the morning cafe au lait they drink French-style out of bowls.
When Gogol takes Maxine to visit his own parents in their grassy suburb, the props tell a different tale: The Gangulis are in the process of installing an obviously unnecessary security system. Nervous and overdressed, Ashima serves an absurdly heavy feast in the formal dining room, where they sit on uncomfortable chairs upholstered in gold velvet.
Raised in Rhode Island by Bengali parents, Lahiri understands what it means to be educated and Indian in America – untouched by poverty or deep-seated bigotry, yet faintly dislocated nonetheless. She’s also a sophisticated, gimlet-eyed chronicler of contemporary urban American life. With graceful and wonderfully specific prose, Lahiri writes about Chianti-soaked party conversations, tricky two-career marriages, the haphazard way people slip into infidelity, and the solace of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder. Like its protagonist, ”The Namesake” is both Indian and entirely American.