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What's in a Name?



The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri is a novel about a culture, a family, a boy growing up and growing into his name, and his lovers. It's a book with an omniscient, third person narrator that switches perspectives. It was said in the book that the purpose of reading is to travel without moving an inch. This novel embodies that sentiment rather well. I will try to be as vague as possible for those who want to read this book, but you may want to return and read this later if you ever plan to read this one.

The story follows a couple's life in the United States after their arranged marriage in India. As can be expected, they are awkward in getting to know one another, getting to know a new culture, and facing parenting together while they try to retain their cultural identity for their children. The book's title comes from this couple's struggle to name their firstborn, a son. The family custom dictated that the maternal grandmother would name the child, but circumstances prevented it. The couple chose what they thought was a temporary name, and always reserved the right to choose a "good name" later. Their parenting false start (so to speak) was magnified by American culture's lack of understanding of the process by which Bengalis typically name their children, and was a source of confusion and resentment by the boy as he attempted to life a typical American life.

As we travel through this novel without moving an inch, we see simple but meaningful glimpses into life as a Bengali. Food was chosen as the representative picture of this post because I believe it is showcased well in this book. We don't just learn about how foods are prepared and what the various dishes are called -- we learn the way that the Bengali culture partakes of the food and approaches the role of host -- always full plates for everyone, days of advanced preparation, and being ready on time all seemed to be emphasized. This is contrasted with the somewhat modern, last-minute, laissez-faire, serve yourself, whatever goes kind of hosting that American families demonstrate (at least as was demonstrated in a wealthy family represented in this book). One style was definitely favored by the author, but the unfavored method wasn't demonized, instead it was described in such a way that it felt hopelessly shallow. It felt indulgent without meaning and that nothing uncomfortable was allowed, which can never be truly genuine.

Ashima (the mother in this book) is described in the first few pages as making some kind of a puffed rice, Indian street fair food that sounds like an exotic version of Chex Mix. I simply have to try it sometime, and I think this recipe is my best bet as an approximation. Our lives are marked by food celebrations, and it serves as a link to our culture, our family of origin, and sometimes our deceased loved ones.

Readers are left to wonder about the best approach to marriage. We have an example of a very strong arranged marriage. We see several great things about this -- the slow familiarity, the dedication. We also have examples of failed relationships that were not arranged. But, we also experience relief that there is a way out of bad relationships in modern American culture. In this, the author showed readers what it is like to have cultures clashing and the difficulty endured when trying to merge the best parts of each.

After Clarissa, I will never again accuse a book of moving too slowly. However, it could be said that there were some dull times in this book. Nevertheless, the author's style is captivating and descriptive. She allows you to feel textures and see details -- simple and profound details that attract you to the characters and settings. It's quite a feat when I can say that I was very rarely confused in this book, and is spared me from a terribly twisted, mind bending ending.

In case anyone is keeping track:
-I read this book as part of my two-person book club
-I found this book at my local Goodwill

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