Read in November 2013
The Namesake,by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake is Gogol Ganguli, the American-born son of an immigrant Hindu couple from Calcutta who is named for the great Russian novelist. Nikolai Gogol and other 19th century novelists were the tie that bound Gogol Ganguli’s literature-loving great-grandfather and father, who believes one of the Russian’s books actually saved his life. The Namesake is the story of the Ganguli family’s adjustment to the United States, beginning with the newlyweds but soon shifting to a study of their eldest child and his struggles with a name he hates and the challenges of being an American child of traditional Bengali parents. This is a quiet novel with the everyday occupations of growing up — figuring out who you are, what occupation you’ll take up, and who you’ll love — are overlaid with the additional burdens of the immigrant experience. Given the fact that the U.S. is once again an immigrant nation and that many of those new arrivals are coming not from Europe but from Asia, this novel offers timely insights into what our first-generation friends and family may be experiencing. However, it was published before 9/11, which means that an important aspect of that contemporary immigrant experience — the suspicion and hassles endured by many people from southwest Asia since that attack — is unmentioned.
Peaches for Father Francis, by Joanne Harris
The third of Joanne Harris’ novels featuring Vianne Rocher, this novel takes place eight years after her sojourn in Lansquenet in Chocolat and four years after her interlude in Montmartre in The Girl With No Shadow. In Peaches for Father Francis, Vianne has regained her confidence, and when she receives a summons from beyond the grave, she returns to Lansquenet with her two daughters, Anouk and Rosette. She finds the town greatly changed from a wave of new Muslim residents of north African descent and rising tensions following the arson fire of a school for girls in the building that once housed Vianne’s chocolate shop. Her old nemesis, Father Reynaud, is the chief suspect in the arson and has been removed from his post in the parish, replaced by a handsome young priest who wants to modernize the church with flat-screen TVs and accommodate the Muslims and their new minaret. Many of the characters from Chocolat reappear in this outing, some in cameos and others in major roles, but like The Girl With No Shadow, this outing is darker than the first novel featuring Vianne Rocher. Unlike The Girl With No Shadow, this novel tackles a real and difficult conflict in France specifically (and much of Europe in general), where the rise of Muslim fundamentalism has made it much more difficult for the nation to smoothly integrate new citizens descended from the cultures of former colonies. Kudos to Harris for tackling such a thorny problem and depicting the many ways France’s different tribes are in conflict, including religion, dress, food, rituals and more. Like the second book in this series, Peaches lacks some of the magic of the first, but I suspect that most Harris fans will like this novel.