We began the new year with a Contemporary novel: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. One of the benefits of having a virtual book club is that we can have the discussion take any format we wish. So as January came to a close & we weren’t able to get together, Julie & I swapped a few emails during the spare moments we did have. Thus we bring you this virtual interaction between us. Enjoy! And leave your remarks in the comments – we’d love to continue the discussion!
Julie: I feel like I should start by saying that this is the first book we have read that I didn’t like. I had fairly high hopes for this book. Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winning author for her debut piece “Interpreter of Maladies” (maybe we should have read that instead), but this didn’t feel like prize winning material to me. Lahiri speaks with authority on her subjects. According to Goodreads she was born in London but raised in Rhode Island ‘by a mother who wanted to raise her children to be Indian’. And she often writes about ‘the lives of Indian-Americans, particularly Bengalis.’ The theme of struggling with your identity is one that I think almost everyone can relate to. But too often the story felt repetitive. And while some of her imagery is enticing (I particularly like the opening sequence where Gogol’s mother is making things with American ingredients), sometimes it was just too much.
Kara: I really was not a fan of this one either. I was looking forward to it based on the recommendations of friends, but it was not my cup of tea. It’s no secret that Western Literature is my passion, but I do typically enjoy ethnic writers as well. This was not one of them however. I may also be strongly biased toward female leads (the feminist said to no one’s surprise…). I may have enjoyed it better if it had been all about Ashima.
Accidents define who we are, perhaps more so than achievements
K: Ashoke’s near death experience
The missing letter with Gogol’s name
The misunderstanding between Ashoke and the principal which leads to 5 year old Gogol choosing to forego a proper name.
Gogol’s misunderstanding of his name, the subsequent hatred of it, and the mistake of changing his name.
J: Agreed, in Gogol’s mind all the celebrations his family made him celebrate all seemed to blur together. He had to go back through photo albums to remember Moushimi being at certain events. His good grades in school and other achievements pale in comparison to the memories of his hardships.
I think this is true in real life. I’ve often heard the idea that we need exponentially more positive remarks made to us than negatives to feel balanced.
K: Gogol and Moushimi are both guinea pigs. Their parents make the decision to move to America and are on the same page with loving and missing their homeland, but also being committed to this new life. They are unable to impart the same feelings to their children, and they are confronted with challenges they do not expect, like the many mistakes surrounding Gogol’s name. By the time Sonia arrives for instance, Ashoke and Ashima are better equipped to dance between cultures and Sonia seems much more well adjusted.
K: Neither Gogol nor Moushimi have strong examples of marriage to look up to. They do not understand their parents’ arranged marriages. They never see evidence of romance or physical displays of affection between their parents. This veil drawn over such an important part of not just marriage, but life, distorts their ability to create healthy relationships. It is assumed the whole of their sexual educations come from outside the home, so it is not surprising they are drawn to exploratory experiences, not understanding the depth that can exist through fidelity.
J: I tend to think that society and media does a disservice to relationships by the way they portray love. A marriage requires commitment. Something that Gogol’s parents have demonstrated but that Gogol struggles with throughout. His parents left India, they struck out on their own together. They had to rely on one another. They had a partnership where they each took on different responsibilities within the marriage. Gogol seems to shirk from things that are difficult. I found him to be a passive lead character.
K: Gogol always seems on the verge of figuring himself out, but never quite there. He is characterized by confusion and disgust. He doesn’t understand his parents or India or his name or his culture. He hates being dragged to parties with the other Bengali families. He hates his name. But he never asks questions, he never tries to understand, to break through the barrier between him and his origins. His motivations for life are not conscious, not based upon who he is, merely who he doesn’t want to be. He gravitates towards different lifestyles simply because they are not the one his family leads. He makes many mistakes because of this: not explaining his family/background to others, hiding from his name, avoiding his parents… until it’s too late.
J: Throughout the book Gogol allows a woman to change how he feels himself. Gogol begins with his college girlfriend Ruth. While home for Christmas Gogol thinks that “as much as he longs to see her, he cannot picture her at the kitchen table on Pemberton Road. He cannot imagine being with her in the house where he is still Gogol”. Even after a year when Gogol has “been to the farmhouse in Maine twice, meeting her father and stepmother,” Gogol’s parents have not met Ruth, and have no interest in meeting her.
With Maxine, Gogol doesn’t just fall in love with her, he falls in love with her parents, her house, her entire way of life. Gogol allows himself to become “incorporated into their lives”. After only three months Maxine asks Gogol to move in with her and her parents. Within three more months Gogol has almost exclusively adopted Maxine’s lifestyle. He uses their dry cleaner, he goes running with her father, he walks the dog, and he reads their books. When Gogol’s father unexpectedly dies, Maxine doesn’t want Gogol to stay in his fathers apartment while he is there to clean it out. She also loses patience with him when he suddenly begins calling his mother and sister daily. In fact, Maxine comes to admit “that she felt jealous of his mother and sister.” For a woman who was thrilled to have Gogol move in with her and adopt her family and way of life, she was not willing to reciprocate.
Then we have Moushimi. Someone who knows him as Gogol, who understands his background, but he still finds himself adapting to her lifestyle. On their trip to Paris, Moushumi is much more concerned with her speech and making sure that she enjoys herself in a city where she used to live than making sure her husband enjoys his first trip there. She won’t even let Gogol take a picture of her for fear of looking like a tourist. The dinner parties that Gogol and Moushumi attend together are with her friends. And not only are they her friends, but Gogol comes to learn that they are friends who were with her throughout her previous relationship, and Moushumi depends on them for recommendations and lifestyle choices and advice, above the opinions of her own husband. It is to these friends that Moushumi betrays Gogol by revealing his name to them. When Moushumi leaves and Gogol is alone once more he thinks, “it is as if a building he’s been responsible for designing has collapsed for all to see.”
Do you have a pet name, or a secret name—and has that name ever become publicly known? Do you have different names with different people? Did you ever wish for a new name?
J: Dad is the king of nicknames. Many of them are within the family, but I was never embarrassed if he called me one of them in front of my friends.
K: I hate nicknames. I hate cutesy versions of things. I have a strong disdain for turning good names into fluffy, childish nonsense, and it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. I was always embarrassed of the names Dad would call me, to the point of extreme anger. I remember pitching fits because he wouldn’t stop calling me “Kari.” He set up my first email address when you went to college so I could talk to you. It was “karaboo2u@yahoo.” I used it through elementary school & would hide it on the computer so the other kids wouldn’t see it and laugh at me.
Clearly I don’t have nicknames with people, and I’ve never wished for a new name. I quite like mine.
J: My husband is not a fan of nicknames. Sweetie, baby, honey, none of it.
So you probably identify with Gogol when they begin to study Nikolai Gogol in his English class in high school. When Gogol “looks at the table of contents” and “sees Gogol listed after Faulkner…the sight of it printed in capital letters on the crinkly page upsets him viscerally.” Gogol is so physically uncomfortable by knowing that he is going to have to study Gogol in his English class that he “wants to excuse himself, to raise his hand and take a trip to the lavatory” and “each time the name is uttered [Gogol] quietly winces.”
Looking back on my notes, I was thinking about the first time that Gogol uses the name Nikhil, when he and some friends go to a college party while they are in high school. Gogol feels a disconnect between himself and the actions that he does while being Nikhil.
I do call my kids all kinds of cutesy nicknames at home, but not in public.
Did you find the ending of The Namesake surprising? Do you think Moushumi is entirely to blame for her infidelity? Is Gogol a victim at the end of the book?
J: I can’t decide if I was surprised. I do think that Moushumi is responsible. On one hand, I think there was foreshadowing when she shut Gogol out when they went to Paris. She got swept up with how living there made her feel. When they got back she wanted to find that feeling again. She drags Gogol to dinners with her friends. On the other hand, Gogol doesn’t seem to have any interests or hobbies that he tries to share with her. Friends of his that he wants to take her to see. He keeps immersing himself in the lives of the women he is with. It’s a bad pattern.
K: I wasn’t surprised at all. I could tell what was going to happen for a while, and 1000% Moushimi is responsible. Whatever Gogol’s shortcomings, nothing justifies going outside a marriage.
Also, let’s point out what a creep Dominic is. He molested Moushimi on a bus when she was like 17 thus essentially giving her Stockholm Syndrome to the point that she is still obsessed with him over a decade later. I’m not sure he has any sort of moral compass. He knows she is married, but that works for him. He doesn’t seem to care about her as a person at all.
Affairs are indicators that something is wrong with the cheater. In this case, Moushimi really wants to be in Paris and living a different life. Her affair is an attempt to create an alternate reality. Obviously there are problems in the marriage because instead of trying to work through it, they give up rather quickly and Moushimi goes off to live the life she wants.
However, I also think that it’s a good point you bring up that Gogol has a very unhealthy pattern with women in that he loses himself and totally acquires his partner’s life. This was extremely apparent with Maxine; after his father died, Maxine couldn’t handle Gogol bringing his own life and needs and feelings into the “relationship” they had. It could not survive.
Again, I’m not sure Gogol knows who he is. He just mirrors whoever he is dating. In my imagination, I hope that Gogol will figure his s*** out. He’s got a lot of personal growth to do before he’s ready for another girlfriend. A good step would be to maintain a strong relationship with his family.
J: Stockholm Syndrome: I knew there was a name but for some reason I couldn’t think of it. The descriptions of Dominic aren’t exactly enticing. And there doesn’t seem to be a logical reason for Moushimi to pursue him, other than wanting to implode her life. She wants to escape from her marriage but won’t just admit it. Instead she sneaks around and then ends things when she slips up.
The book says those struggles that “have formed Gogol, shaped him, determined who he is.” As I continue to reflect on the book I think I am most happy with the man Gogol is finally becoming at the end. A man who spends time with his family and has become to feel at peace with his heritage and his namesake.
Now it’s your turn, have you read The Namesake? What did you think?
For February we are reading: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte