Book Review: ‘The Namesake’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

Spoiler-free zone.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a marvelous writer. With her beautiful, precise prose that take you sailing into her stories, she’s one of those authors that makes you forget that you are reading. I loved her two short story collections, Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies, the latter of which won the Pulitzer prize, so I was excited to read her novel The Namesake, which also won the Pulitzer. I was not disappointed.

As with many of her short stories, The Namesake tackles themes of family, identity, culture clashes, and the theme she is perhaps most known for: the experience of American immigrants and their first-generation American children. Lahiri writes with such empathy and insight. Her characters are complex and, whether or not you agree with their decisions, you come to understand them.

The Namesake is told from varying perspectives. We’re engulfed in one character, which leads us to another, then another. It’s a seamless story that unravels into many, only to come back in the end as one.

The narratives of the different family members weave together not for a larger plot, but for a larger picture. Literary fiction at its finest, this intimate portrait of a family and their different experiences assimilating into American culture is moving and deeply insightful.

This is the story of the Gangulis, a Bengali couple who immigrates to America. We witness the couple become parents and raise a family in a land that is foreign to them. At the novel’s center is their first born, a son, whom they struggle to name.

The story of their son’s name is both interesting and thought-provoking. It emerges throughout the novel in different ways. As he grows, we watch his name affect his identity at various life stages, how it shapes his experiences and relationships with himself, his heritage, and his family.

“He hates that his name is both absurd and obscure, that it has nothing to do with who he is, that it is neither Indian nor American but of all things Russian. He hates having to live with it, with a pet name turned good name, day after day, second after second… At times his name, an entity shapeless and weightless, manages nevertheless to distress him physically, like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear.” Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

What’s in a name? This book will surely tell you.

Lahiri has a way of capturing life’s moments between moments, those that are so subtle yet so significant in defining one’s journey and identity.

If you’ve read Lahiri’s short stories, you will enjoy her novel The Namesake. And likewise if you’ve read this book you will enjoy her short stories! Her writing is elegant and exquisitely detailed, but most of all, her characters will linger with you long after you’ve finished reading.

Have you read The Namesake?