I fell in love with Jhumpa Lahiri’s work when I had read her first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, and was eager to dive into her first novel. Her writing is luminous, seemingly effortless, and as a writer I was fully absorbed by her use of language, and its simple beauty.
But this story of how an Indian family, the Gangulis of Calcutta, finds their place in the United States lacked the depth of character development that was not an issue with the short stories. It is a universal tale with familiar elements: the immigrant generation longing for home, dealing with their loneliness for family, bewilderment at aspects of their adopted culture, eventually learning to adapt and find their place in a new land. One of the saddest aspects to this and other stories like it is the inevitable acceptance—however reluctantly—of the immigrants (in this case, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli) to watch their American-born children rebel to varying extents from their cultural roots. Gogol, the main character in this novel, and his sister Sonia, are determined to be fully American, and typically are at times embarrassed by their parents’ “Indian-ness.”
This story revolved around Gogol, whose name (after the famed Russian writer) plagues him for years, until he decides to change it. Yet Lahiri, as omniscient narrator, continues to refer to him as Gogol, even when others in his life refer to him as his chosen name: Nikhil. It was her way, it seems, of conveying that his cultural roots are something he cannot escape and will one day choose to embrace to a larger extent. The story behind his name is a deeply affecting one as well, but is one that is not appreciated by Gogol until the end of the book.
There are many poignant aspects of this story, mostly involving Gogol’s parents, Ashima and Ashoke. I wish there had been more dramatic episodes that involved the three of them. Gogol’s romantic life involves women who at first inspire yet ultimately disappoint, and we sympathize, but perhaps not as much as if Lahiri had gone deeper into his own emotional life.
I will still eagerly read Lahiri’s other works. She is a writer of immense talent, and despite these shortcomings, reading her prose is an intoxicating pleasure.
This review is also posted at Goodreads.com.