Book Review: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

I had the pleasure of reading The Interpreter of Maladies in a class called “Gender and Diaspora” when I was in college. I was familiar enough with Jhumpa Lahiri to know that her writing was mesmerizing and that I wanted more. I found The Namesake in a free mini library at the Dandelion Communitea Cafe in Orlando, and immediately devoured it.

I want to talk about a few things in this review. Obviously, it’s a New York Times best seller, it’s been made into a movie, and is well known and loved, so I don’t really want to talk about how “good” the book it. I do want to talk about how it fits within diaspora literature, the plot structure, and bring up a comparison.

Diaspora refers to the scattered populations of a country within other countries. I for example, as an Indian person living in America, am part of the diaspora. It is refreshing to read a book that talks so frankly about cultural clash and generational clash. I very much identified with the plot in a way that I haven’t with other books, and to see myself, my struggles, and my identity on the page was invigorating. I have read a lot of diaspora literature, and what always strikes me is the re-remembering that I am not alone, that there are others who have experienced similar circumstances, but that my personal experience is unique.

Basic plot structure tends to follow five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. There are variances on this, of course, but that’s basically how most books look. The Namesake doesn’t really follow this. While after reading I could probably define a climax, and rising and falling action, I wouldn’t call this a book that one could easily define structure through(I’ll leave that lesson to Looking For Alaska). Lahiri tells the story of a man’s life, going from his babyhood to boyhood, through teenage years and adulthood. She traces his like and hobbies, his relationship with his parents and the art world, and outlines his romantic attachments. Gogol is normal. He lives a normal life. He does normal things. The two things that define this book beyond the normalcy of identity is the characters name and ethnicity. Lahiri has a masterful way of weaving these two through the story, and it was fascinating to read a book like this that just flat out disregards real stakes.

I want to touch on how this book compares to one of my favorites My Name is Asher Lev. For the uninitiated, Lev is the story of a child who grows into a man and balances his desire to be an artist and the work he does to become one with his faith(Hasidism) and family. My Name is Asher Lev has a a lot at stake and sets up those stakes in a way that The Namesake doesn’t, but the books tone, the way the story is told and the pacing feel so similar. If you were a fan of Asher Lev and wish you could read it again for the first time, The Namesake might be what you want to tackle next.

Have you read any of the books I’ve talked about in this post? Did you like them? Let me know in a comment below.

-Mehek

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