Born in the U.S.A

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Author: Sam Munson
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,572 words

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[(review date November 2003) In the following review, Munson compares The Namesake with Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, identifying thematic commonalities and noting that both are "beset with many of the same problems."]

These two coming-of-age novels [The Namesake and Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude], both of them released in the last months to much acclaim, are set in different environments but treat a common theme. Jhumpa Lahiri, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999), here focuses on the American-born son of Bengali immigrants living in Boston. Jonathan Lethem, the author of Motherless Brooklyn (2000), takes as his protagonist the child of a bohemian mother and artist father in 1970's Brooklyn. Living more or less as strangers among their family and friends, both heroes take their places in a line of figures in American literature that stretches from Henry Adams to Henry Roth and beyond--alienated children who inhabit two worlds but are at home in neither.

In The Namesake, Gogol Ganguli, born in 1968 and named by his father after the great Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, is pressured by his immigrant parents to excel in school, to neglect all things impractical--like developing a budding talent for figure drawing--and above all to succeed. Whether or not he ever does so remains uncertain; what is certain is that in the course of his struggles he becomes increasingly American, sating himself with television and on the junk food--like "individually wrapped slices of cheese [and] bologna"--that his parents provide him but refuse to eat themselves. Before heading off to Yale, he even adopts the name Nikhil instead of Gogol because to his ear it sounds more "American."

At Yale, Nikhil/Gogol studies architecture, that most Anglo-Saxon of professions, and for the rest of the novel, which ends with the dissolution of his marriage in 2000, when he is all of thirty-two, he spends his life more or less exclusively in the company of young professionals in New York. His principal love affair is with Maxine, the daughter of arty New York aristocrats. Only his father's sudden death precipitates a partial return to his origins, sealed by his marriage to a Bengali woman, Moushumi, who is another conflicted child of immigrants. His return journey, such as it is, is completed when Moushumi leaves him and Gogol at last opens the book of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100114090