By Jhumpa Lahiri
This book, just technically speaking, is amazing. It’s not a Must Read for me, because it personally didn’t connect with me as much as other books did, but it really just is Very Good Writing (TM).
The title of the book comes from the story itself: an Indian Bengali couple move from Calcutta to Massachusetts. They have a baby boy, and the nurse comes to ask them for a name for the birth certificate. In Bengal, they have a tradition where a child normally has two names – a nickname that all the family uses, and the real name that is decided, sometimes, months later, always given by an elder of the family (fun fact: my cousin who was born a few weeks ago also had to be given a name that was blessed by their grandmother, so this is quite common practice). Now stumbling with this American nurse forcing them to provide a name, and not getting a response yet from their letter to his grandmother, they decide to give him the nickname Gogol after the Russian author.
This is a really short summary of just one aspect of the book and it’s long so, as you can guess, this book is really long. But it’s incredibly fulfilling! There’s all these elements of his resentment of his culture and his parents that all of us can empathise with to an extent – because all of us have been 15 and hated our family for a bit – but for all that you feel for him, you also feel angry with him, you want and expect better of him, and he actually provides! It has such a beautiful, fulfilling ending; it just brought such happy tears to my eyes (which is a welcome change from the usual dying inside tears).
This book is a goliath – it tracks his life from infancy well into, I would guess, his early 30s? With detail too. His different romantic relationships. His relationship with his (of course, the centre of it all) his parents. His relationship with his culture and what it expects of him and what he wants from it. It’s obviously the sort of thing where I had moments of, “I have experienced this! My family is literally the same!” that really resonates. But I also think these themes of family and forgiveness are universal, and just from our chats I know you will appreciate his doting mother and his awkward father and his badass sister.
Of special mention: his romantic relationships were really well done. He has relationships with white women and then a brown woman and the way it delves into how and why these succeed and fail – like it’s in the little details. There’s a moment with the rich white family that’s super open and liberal where he’s having wine and they’re having intelligent conversation about modern art, and he juxtaposes this to his childhood, with Indiands crowded around a television set and shouting over one another, and he prefers the first; these little details of how you can go from appreciating something to resenting it, or vice versa, and these really tiny things that make up a difference in culture. And how they can impact a relationship. But also how ultimately it’s impossible to use “cultural difference” as a justification for a failed relationship because you have to really try to ignore the problems and be willfully ignorant – otherwise they do come up, and all you need to do is express them. These relationships are the encapsulation of:
Communication is key.
You know, at the start I said that there wasn’t a personal connection with this book. But on writing this and reflecting, that’s a lie. I don’t want there to be, because he’s this first-gen immigrant who for the most part resents his upbringing and culture, and I really don’t want to empathise with that because that lack of appreciation for family pisses me off. But honestly, it does ring true for a big part of my teenage-hood. I was this annoying character in the story of my life. So I will make it a Must Read. Because it’s a really damned good book no matter how much I don’t want to like it. And because I think it’s the sort of thing you can chuck at your child in 20 years to teach him about his future partner’s culture (i.e., my child’s culture, since our children are meant to be) and show them how love changes and fluctuates, but how, well family’s forever, right?