The Namesake is the debut novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. She has previously written the Pulitzer Prize winning short story collection The Interpreter of Maladies . This is the story of immigrants from India and is also the story of their son, Gogol Ganguli.

Ashoke and Ashima are married in India in a marriage arranged by their parents (as is the custom). Just after the wedding they travel to America where Ashoke is first a student at MIT, then later a professor. While Ashoke is able to feel a connection to this new country (he starkly remembers an older friend saying that his one mistake was leaving American to return to India), Ashima feels her immigrant status keenly. She holds to the ways of the Bengali and when their son is born they want to name him in the old manner: the grandmother will send a letter with his Good Name. A Good Name is that which is the official name on record and is used publicly and professionally. The private name is that which is only used among family and friends. But this is America and the child may not be releases from a hospital without a name on the birth certificate. The parents decide to name their son Gogol, after the Russian author Nikolai Gogol who, in a roundabout way, was instrumental in saving the life of Ashoke when he was a young man. They never intended this to be his Good Name and they waited for the letter from the grandmother to come, but it never does and so right up until Gogol is ready to go to kindergarten the only name he has is Gogol. When Gogol is to enroll in kindergarten his parents give him the Good Name of Nikhil and try to force both Gogol and the school to use it, but he refuses and so does the school. His name is Gogol.

I stressed this part of the novel because it raises a rather large theme within the novel: that of identity. It seems that everyone in The Namesake is dealing with their identity. Ashima is trying to hold onto the Bengali cultural identity while her two children, Gogol and Sonia, are trying to break free of that identity. Gogol and Sonia find partners that match, for a time, what they feel their identities should be.

The Namesake takes us on the journey of the Ganguli family over the course of more than two decades. After Gogol graduates high school he decides to legally change his name because of his deep dissatisfaction with his name. Strangely enough, Gogol decides on Nikhil, the name he would not accept as a child. The novel takes Gogol through his college years at Yale, his relationships with women, his marriage (and divorce) and his reconciliation with his mother. All this is truly a quest for identity (in particular, his marriage to a Bengali woman with a similar identity issue).

Simply put, this is a good book. It is infused with quality and good writing and Lahiri gives us a good sense of who these characters are. The fact that I didn t truly care what happened to Gogol did not lessen my enjoyment of the book at all. Throughout Lahiri s short stories and into this novel, I have enjoyed stepping into the world she has created and meeting her characters. To me, Jhumpa Lahiri feels like a more accomplished Zadie Smith ( White Teeth ) and The Namesake is much stronger than Smith s second novel The Autograph Man . I look forward to Jhumpa Lahiri s next novel (or short story collection).