A first novel from Pulitzer-winner Lahiri (stories: Interpreter of Maladies, 1999) focuses on the divide between Indian immigrants and their Americanized children.
The action takes place in and around Boston and New York between 1968 and 2000. As it begins, Ashoke Ganguli and his pregnant young wife Ashima are living in Cambridge while he does research at MIT. Their marriage was arranged in Calcutta: no problem. What is a problem is naming their son. Years before in India, a book by Gogol had saved Ashoke’s life in a train wreck, so he wants to name the boy Gogol. The matter becomes contentious and is hashed out at tedious length. Gogol grows to hate his name, and at 18 the Beatles-loving Yale freshman changes it officially to Nikhil. His father is now a professor outside Boston; his parents socialize exclusively with other middle-class Bengalis. The outward-looking Gogol, however, mixes easily with non-Indian Americans like his first girlfriend Ruth, another Yalie. Though Lahiri writes with painstaking care, her dry synoptic style fails to capture the quirkiness of relationships. Many scenes cry out for dialogue that would enable her characters to cut loose from a buttoned-down world in which much is documented but little revealed. After an unspecified quarrel, Ruth exits. Gogol goes to work as an architect in New York and meets Maxine, a book editor who seems his perfect match. Then his father dies unexpectedly—the kind of death that fills in for lack of plot—and he breaks up with Maxine, who like Ruth departs after a reported altercation (nothing verbatim). Girlfriend number three is an ultrasophisticated Indian academic with as little interest in Bengali culture as Gogol; these kindred spirits marry, but the restless Moushumi proves unfaithful. The ending finds the namesake alone, about to read the Russian Gogol for the first time.
A disappointingly bland follow-up to a stellar story collection.