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The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri: A Book I Should Have Read Sooner -- and Why I'm Glad I Didn't

10/14/2013 05:10 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

In the fall of 1993 my parents, who were in the middle of year two of their five-plus-year divorce, and I, who was in the middle of my first ill-considered love-affair, packed my dad's truck, proudly plastered with a Boston University sticker centered across the back window, and drove over the course of two days from Charleston to Boston for my freshman year in college.

What had seemed that spring like a golden ticket -- a four-year full scholarship to my first-choice school -- was now the object of all my dread. I agonized over the letters my new roommates sent me that summer, all loopy handwriting and preciously dotted "i's" and impenetrable pop-culture references. And I obsessed over the fleeting nights of summer spent in our hammock with my sad, sullen, but adoring boyfriend. I called him from a motel phone somewhere in Delaware and wept.

As the last of the three roommates to arrive, I got the least desirable bed, and was shut-out completely from the chests of drawers and the closet, relegated to a poorly designed chiffarobe in the middle of the room. Already, our room was a shrine to Jane's Addiction and Morrisey and -- still inexplicably to me all these years later -- the Partridge Family. I felt hopelessly uncool displaying my Harry Connick, Jr. poster and my deluxe edition James Taylor "JT" CD box set.

In the weeks and months that followed, I was miserable -- all at once homesick for a sad-eyed boy and desperate to declare myself separate and apart from my childhood home. I did not recognize then, as the days got shorter and shorter, that my ordinary gloom was giving way to a full-blown, crushing depression. I just thought that I had been lied to about the charms of college life. In the meantime, I enjoyed the occasional seduction -- cheeky repartee with a red-headed British philosophy professor and late-night drives to Revere Beach with a bearded sophomore who had his own car. But they were short-lived and unsatisfying at best, and reduced me to sobbing, wracked guilt at worst. On one morning I did enjoy the curious pleasure of decisively winning a minor argument in a seminar with Saul Bellow, but that seemed to impress only me, and my happiness evaporated when I stepped outside of the seminar room to see the once-beautiful wall of ivy on my route home turning brown and dying in the cold. Sic transit gloria.

I didn't last 10 days in the second semester. I lied and said I would be back. I told friends I had mono. I returned to South Carolina. To the sullen boy. To the hammock. To the slow-motion calamity of my parents' breakup.

None of this has anything to do with Jhumpa Lahiri or The Namesake. Except that her book is about what it means to be a stranger, what it means to long for the familiar, why it is we strain toward uncharted territory, and how it is that the lens of time recasts nearly every moment in our lives in different hues, imbues them with the wisdom of foreshadowing.

Lahiri was a graduate student at Boston University at the same time I was a freshman. I wonder, as her characters do, if we crossed paths then: on the green behind the student union? At a T-stop on Commonwealth Avenue? In the stacks of the library?

When Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies in 2000, I was just three years out of college, living in Los Angeles with a different boy from home who would later become a man and be my husband and the father to my child. But in 2000, we were both very much still living in an extended adolescence, two pinballs of potential energy spent mostly on empty pursuits. So the thought of someone who could have been in my University Professors seminar winning the Pulitzer Prize was just about more than I could stand. I didn't begrudge her the award, but there was no way I was reading the book. And over time an imperceptible bias crept in. I forgot the details of her biography, just remembered that, as a rule, I didn't read her books.

What an idiot.

I devoured most of The Namesake in one sitting -- with only the brief interruption of my maternal lunch-packing, breakfast-fixing, and uniform-laying-out duties--and now I am all at once devastated and full: for the title character, Gogol, who by the book's end is still a young man, but one who has lived two lives already, who is acutely aware of all he has overlooked in his midst, who lacks any certainty about how to avoid the same mistakes in the future; for his mother, Ashima, who has lived a lifetime of distance from home so that when her chance to return finally comes, there is no such thing as home; for his father, Ashoke, whose terrible, tragic past gives his life purpose, brings him to Ashima, and gives Gogol the name he hates. And for myself and all of the past selves I have tried to inhabit and later escape.

Lahiri doesn't work in glittering metaphor or dazzle with wordplay. She doesn't take political stands through these characters or play literary hide-the-ball with the point. She tells a rich, human, and humane story about family and longing and place. No tricks, just magic.

So I was stupid to have ignored her for so long, obviously. But this book finds me at a moment in life where I am, like Gogol is at the book's end, still close enough to my youth to feel its energy and, like Ashima, now far enough from what I thought I knew to be thoroughly perplexed as to where to go next. Whether I am working as a writer or a lawyer, I often feel I am an airplane about to set sail on the ocean -- a perfectly functional machine in service to a mismatched purpose. That there are two, or more, of me. The Namesake is a reminder that we, nearly all of us, feel this way at some point, I suppose. When the things that have defined us, that have formed us, are falling away; when we must learn to navigate old haunts anew; when the possible spills out in front of us, ever-so-slightly out of reach. And when we know must reach for it anyway.