The plot is simple. The story follows a newly married Bengali couple- Ashok and Ashima Ganguli- as they build a life and family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ashok is occupied with his research at the University and adapts rather easily compared with Ashima who suffers quietly in the alien world. They become a part of a bustling minority Bengali community and have two children Gogol-an odd name inspired by a Russian novelist connected to a tragic accident in Ashok’s past- and Sonia.
The story goes on to follow Gogol for most of the second half of the book. Lahiri writes about Gogol’s experiences- struggles of growing up to immigrant parents in a foreign land, his struggle with conflicting loyalties, the onus of his peculiar name, his star-crossed string of love affairs. Lahiri leaves you feeling deeply about Gogol, Ashima, and Ashok.
There is a beautiful melancholic quality that Lahiri is able to evoke throughout this book. She prefers to narrate the story and there is very rarely any dialogue. Ashok, Ashima, and Gogol are solid characters that have left their impression on me. Lahiri examines themes like the immigrant experience, cultural and generational divides, parental expectations, and the quest to reconcile our true identity with the name we inherit from our parents.
I love two things that Lahiri is able to do. First, her ability to take you to a time and place in the past and bring you back deftly. Second, the little details and peculiarities of each person and place make this work tangible.
I read this book in Mumbai. The place I grew up. It feels strange saying “I’m visiting” and hearing my mom tell her friends she has to cancel a plan because “a guest is at home”. When I told my dad “I had forgotten my toothbrush at home” it felt unsettling to use “home” in that context sitting in the living room that used to be my home. Yes, this book is a rather depressing take on the immigrant experience. But it is one I’m grateful Lahiri wrote.
🕵 How I Discovered It
Goodreads. I recently read Lahiri’s memoir In Other Words late in November and I knew I just had to read more of her work.
✍️ My Favorite Quotes
“Will you remember this day, Gogol?” his father had asked, turning back to look at him, his hands pressed like earmuffs to either side of his head. “How long do I have to remember it?” Over the rise and fall of the wind, he could hear his father’s laughter. He was standing there, waiting for Gogol to catch up, putting out a hand as Gogol drew near. “Try to remember it always,” he said once Gogol reached him, leading him slowly back across the breakwater, to where his mother and Sonia stood waiting. “Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.”
“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.”
“Though they are home they are disconcerted by the space, by the uncompromising silence that surrounds them. They still feel somehow in transit, still disconnected from their lives, bound up in an alternate schedule, an intimacy only the four on them share”