Book by Jhumpa Lahiri
Review by Mandy Anderson
College of Arts and Sciences
Kent State University

Jhumpa Lahiri’s, The Namesake, has been selected by several colleges and universities as the common summer reading book.  This novel lends itself well as a discussion piece for incoming students due to the overarching themes presented by the book, among them: establishment of identity separate from the family, the journey to adulthood, and coming to terms with the past.  The book focuses on a Bengali couple who leave their homeland and start a family in a land separate from all they have known.  The life of their eldest child, given the strange name of Gogol—neither a Bengali nor American moniker after his father’s favorite author, is chronicled from birth through his early thirties.  Not only is much attention paid to his struggle to accept or reject him name, but also his cultural heritage. 

Advisors can, no doubt, draw parallels between Gogol’s experiences and those their students may encounter.  Gogol goes against the expectations of his parents’ and selects to attend college a distance from home rather than the university where his father teaches.  On the train rides back home, Gogol can feel himself transforming back into the boy his family expects him to be rather than the individual he has matured into while away at school.  From hiding the fact that he’s taking a drawing course his parents would think of as “frivolous” (Lahiri, 2003, p. 104), to his decision to major in architecture rather than pursue the more traditionally expected fields of medicine or law, there are numerous examples an advisor can use to spark discussion with students about events and concerns common to many students.

This novel can also help to understand the experience and struggles of students with backgrounds different from one’s own.  From Gogol’s mother’s seeming inability to fully accept the United States as home, to how the U.S. born Gogol and his sister handle the long journeys back to India with their parents to visit relatives they barely know in an environment that is alien to them, these passages can make an advisor more sensitive and empathetic to the situations our diverse student body may go through.  As a first generation Bangali son, Gogol must cope with the vocational, marital, and cultural expectations his family has placed upon him as a result of his background.  For advisors who come from ethnic backgrounds where there are few imposed expectations, a reading of The Namesake can help one to understand the pressure some students may be under and how to navigate these delicate topics while respecting individual choice and recognizing the importance and gravity of family influence.

This novel is an ideal selection for personal reading and enjoyment as well as an ideal choice to develop as a culturally aware professional.  If chosen as a common reading selection for students, they will find the protagonist relatable even if some aspects of his life differ from their own.  All who read the book will benefit from its universal theme of search for identity and one’s unique place in society.

The Namesake (2003), Book by Jhumpa Lahiri. Review by Mandy Anderson. New York: Houghton Mifflin.  304 pp.  $14.95 (paperback) ISBN: 978-0-618-48522-2

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