Female author and Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, who also authored Interpreter of Maladies, kept my heart beating and my mind wide awake all night, after not being able to set aside The Namesake until the very end.
It is always interesting to observe language that reviewers use. Is it candid or a polite but positive constraint? Emotional and authentic or precise and poised?
“A fine novel from a superb writer,” says the Washington Post. “Fine.” What the hell does fine mean? It doesn’t do her work justice, versus Newsweek which more authentically and accurately describes her style: “Lahiri writes such direct, translucent prose that you almost forget you’re reading.”
Yes, that’s exactly how her writing is….and after you’re done, the characters remain in your mind, your dreams and into the next day.
She writes largely about displacement, specifically what it is like for first generation Indian Gogol (the main character) to grow up in a Boston suburb (from the way she describes it, it must be Arlington or somewhere closeby), with no connection to his Indian heritage except for the infrequent trips his family makes to Calcutta, the fact that his parents had an arranged marriage, his mother regularly wears a sari and cooks Indian food at home.
Aggravated by these stark differences to his known world, he compares his upbringing to his post college Manhattan circles….smaller dinner parties with great wine of no more than a dozen people shine compared to his family’s frequent gatherings of 30 or more. No alcohol with fried food served in their original dishes, children buzzing around, noise, energy, noise, energy, noise energy.
Is that unlike other cultures we all know and are part of, even if we’re only 5%, 10% or perhaps 80% part of as American muts? Italian, Jewish, French, Spanish, Irish, Russian, Jamaican, the list goes on. Like Indian culture, these are cultures that exude passion, art, design, music, literature and yes, beautiful noise and energy. Lots of it.
Gogol ends up at Yale, embarrased by his name, which is the surname of a famous Russian author his father loved. A flash of a Gogol book from the hands of his buried father amidst flames and dead bodies during this 1960-something train wreck, saved his life.
This, Gogol does not learn until he is in college, news that both saddens and alienates him even more from his family while at the same time bringing him closer to his father. The knowledge of this past he remains foreign to, including his father, the very man he loves but does not understand, a man he calls Baba, a man who is quiet and does not reveal his feelings, a man who sacrified so much for him….a sacrifice he does not fully understand until he turns 33, sadly after his father falls prey to a heart attack.
The novel recounts his deliberate rejection of all things Indian and traditional, his wrenching love affairs with women from cultures vastly different from his own, to the final short-lived love affair with his wife.
The novel tries hard to equally celebrate the nomadic spirit of the youthful rebel and the traditionalist. You feel for them over and over, not just the main characters, but the families and the barely mentioned Americans in the New England suburbs, the people whose characters are never developed…..missing, missing, losing, losing, missing, losing, missing, losing…..
You end up weeping for all of them, wanting to embrace and empathize with them even if you couldn’t imagine doing so in real life.
When Gogol’s mother begins to settle into her new New England suburb, she meets other widowed or divorced women who live alone. She, like her mother-in-law considers their lives humiliating. It is an interesting word choice that Lahiri chooses here, yet she means just that.
“Mrs. Jones eats alone, drives herself to work in the snow and sleet alone, sees her children and grandchildren, at most three or four times a year….” I’m American and it sounds painful, not independent to me, despite the fact that I know countless women who live this way.
Lahiri weaves in nearly every aspect all of us deal with in a lifetime regardless of our economic place, class or culture: marriage, pregnancy, sacrifice for children, divorce, death, parental loss and decline, parental alienation, urban versus rural struggle, life transitions across generations, responsibility, social status, forgiveness, and patience.
The other thing that she captures so well is the ugliness of America’s sprawling suburbs and how easily people fall prey to the bland and the blander over the interesting and the compelling.
One of my favorite passages is taken from a previous moment Gogol has while at a New Hampshire cottage. Beautifully corralled, she writes:
“Through the window, he sees that dawn is creeping into the sky, only a handful of stars still visible, the shapes of the surrounding pines and cabins growing distinct. A bird begins to call. There, in this cloistered wilderness, he is free.”
I can vividly, so vividly recapture every bird that begins to call at moments like this. The early morning awakening of the lake, when you hear nothing at all but a wripple or the soft and delicate sound of the water brushing, wisping, crawling to its rightful shore — alone naturally on its own or slightly more energetically from a 5 am canoe passing by gently and unobstrusively — all, before the roar of the day’s motorboats, fisherman, divers, sunners, sailors and swimmers reclaim the lake.
Gogol’s wife, who also suffers from a mismatched identity, cannot remain faithful. Yet this has less to do with her fidelity as it does her own need as a first generation American woman to roam, wander and be free in the same way that some men have chosen to be nomadic, artistic creators of all things wonderful. She reflects on her wasted fellowship in Paris, something she gave up quietly because it did not feel possible as a married woman. Not unlike the voice of my own grandmother and mother did and so many others grandmothers and mothers.
Towards the end, while the entire book gravitates to Gogol and his family’s developments, growth and mishaps, it is her that we ‘nearly’ hear the last of…..as she thinks of this passing window of opportunity, “the sun is directly behind her, and the shadow of her head spreads across the thick, silken pages, a few strands of her hair strangely magnified, quivering, as if viewed through a microscope. She leans back her head, closes her eyes. When she opens them a moment later, the sun has slipped away, a lone sliver of it now diminishing into the floorboards, like the gradual closing of a curtain, causing the stark white pages of the book to turn gray.”
Powerful. And yes, startling, riveting and compelling. For all woman who have gone to that place, you know. You have experienced the sun and the gradual closing. For Gogol too, his decision to begin reading a book from the author for whom he was named, was a decision to start living life in a way he has never known, just in time………before the sun starts to slip away.