Book review: The Namesake

Like my favorite movies, my favorite novels seem to share a strong sense of place and a deep, inchoate longing on the part of at least one of the characters. And, perversely, I return to these favorites, Moon Deluxe, Ed Wood, Ham on Rye, Showgirls, over and over again.

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is filled with characters who are filled with longing; most are either Bengali transplants to 1970s Boston or their 1st generation American children, and all of them seem to pine for some sense of belonging to something, a family, a country, a person, that will give their lives shape and meaning.

Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, and I can see why. Her writing beautifully evokes mood and place without ever feeling fussy or self-conscious, and damn, her sentences are just plain elegant. Here she describes the transformation of a young woman who marries the title character:

Suddenly it was easy, and after years of being convinced she would never have a lover she began to fall effortlessly  into affairs. With no hesitation, she had allowed men to seduce her in cafés, in parks, while she gazed at paintings in museums. She gave herself openly, completely,  not caring about the consequences. She was exactly the same person, looked and behaved exactly the same way, and yet suddenly, in that new city, she was transformed into the kind of girl she had once envied, had believed she would never become.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I did find my interest flagging at roughly the halfway point, just about where the narrative perspective shifts from Ashoke and Ahsimi, the parents, and their son, Gogol/Nikhil, the namesake of the title. Short stories or novellas are quite different animals from novels, and perhaps Lahiri is less comfortable with the longer form.

Still, it is a magnificent story and, for the most part, a compulsively good read, the best new-ish novel I've read in some time.

And now I have all those good stories to look forward to...