I first encountered Jhumpa Lahiri in her newest collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. My review of this stunning collection is here. It took me awhile to finally get to The Namesake (OK, it took me five months) although I had it in my actual TBR stack. Dr. H. got to it before I did and gave it a lukewarm review ("I liked it, but it wasn't fantastic"), so I wasn't in a huge hurry to get to it.
But I'm glad I finally did. The Namesake is Lahiri's first novel, and it doesn't hold a candle to Unaccustomed Earth; however, that collection of short stories was, as indicated in my review linked above, phenomenal. The Namesake dragged a bit and left me feeling sometimes wishing for more. Nonetheless, Lahiri's writing is excellent and her powers of perception amazing.
Gogol Gungali, the son of immigrants Ashoke and Ashima, despises his name. "Gogol" was a name indicative of neither his Bengali heritage nor his American birth. In fact, the name (which carries a story that he never hears until adulthood) was meant to be only temporary, until a better name was chosen, but Gogol goes through life being burdened by a name that hangs like a heavy chain around his neck. He obsesses about his name and eventually changes it.
The novel is essentially one of cultural identity, heritage vs. home, personal identity, and family ties. Big themes, but Lahiri handles them well and, for the most part, in a satisfying way. I think the novel works best in conveying the tremendous struggles in making a life in a new country, leaving behind deeply ingrained traditions and culture, as well as expressing the difficulties of the children of these immigrants.
Next on my list is Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. And although I've read so-so reviews, I'm also going to look for the movie version of The Namesake.