Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Ties that Chafe, Bind...and Shelter

The Book: The Namesake
The Writer:Jhumpa Lahiri
The Dealio: With my strong preference for stories about dysfunctional families, both fictional and non-, never thought I would find myself recommending one about a family that is hyper-functional. This is the one to break that habit of mine: The Namesake introduces us to a young, extremely well-educated, but cool- perhaps emotionally distant-Ashoke, who brings his new bride, Ashima, to Cambridge, MA where he works as a professor at MIT. In winter. To a postage-stamp of an apartment. And then picks up his life much as before.
The first few chapters flash back and forth between the couple's past to present, to the woman's struggle to figure out how even the basic things work in the US, then on through their lives together. Soon children come along- including the uniquely named Gogol Ganguly, the namesake of the book's title. Through succeeding chapters, we sneak a peek into the lives of each major player, watch as generations struggle first, to adapt, then, later, to grow, to find a place where old world and new meet, clash, then learn to move along side by side, no longer irritated or challenged, but, finally, comforted and supported.
Moments of laugh-out-loud humor and gentle, awkward but genuine romance dance alongside tear-inducing episodes of friction and resistance as each person struggles to understand and enbrace the old, while asserting a separate, newer identity with the new. With the gentle patience of an orchid breeder or a miniatures' crafter, Lahiri demonstrates again and again an understanding of the urgency of both sides of this generational dissonance. The exquisite placement of two very tiny scenes involving Gogol's father's shoes-of all things!- is guaranteed to move you-perhaps even to tears, as two people, separated by more than 20 years, come to realize how important this man is, was, and is going to remain in both their lives. And it takes a gifted writer to produce such delicate treats without any self-awareness or mawkishness. There are so many genuine touches, details and such affection for each of the main characters that, by the end of the story, we truly feel we have met and known these people...or wish that we had.
The Grading Session: 5 stars out of 5. As a bonus, this book became a film- which, wonder of wonders, is absolutely authentic and true to the original story, (Although the family was inexplicably moved from MA to NY in this transition. A tiny thing, really, but...well, why?) I also recommend the movie as one of great, good spirit and touching grace.
Lessons Learned: Sure, the ties of family can chafe, bind and frustrate. But, it is so important to remember that they can also nurture, shelter and support when we need it most.

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