Summary and Analysis
After finishing college, Gogol completes a graduate program in architecture at Columbia University. He now works for an architecture firm in New York City, earning very little money and living in a tiny apartment. One night at a party, he meets a girl named Maxine Ratliff, a fellow Columbia graduate who works for a publisher of art books. The next morning, Maxine calls him, claiming to have looked up his number in the phone book, and invites him to have dinner with her at her parents’ house.
Maxine and her parents, Lydia and Gerald, live a life far wealthier and far more culturally “American” than Gogol is accustomed to. Their house is enormous, their dinner accompanied by plenty of expensive wine, and their mealtime conversation unlike anything Gogol hears from his own parents. Gogol and Maxine begin dating; soon Gogol is spending so many nights with Maxine that he barely seems to live in his tiny apartment anymore. The Ratliffs give him house keys and encourage him to think of the house as his. He loves all the ways their life is different from his own Bengali upbringing, but he can’t help feeling that he doesn’t quite belong.
Ashima calls and begs Gogol to visit before Ashoke leaves to spend nine months in Ohio. At first Gogol says he is too busy with work, but eventually he confesses that he is seeing someone and that he has plans to go on vacation with her in New Hampshire. He and Maxine visit the Gangulis on their way to New Hampshire, and Gogol feels uncomfortable seeing Maxine interact with his parents. At the end of the visit, Maxine hears Ashoke call his son “Gogol.” When Gogol later explains to Maxine his name change, she tells him it is “the cutest thing I’ve ever heard” but quickly forgets about it.
Gogol and Maxine join her parents in New Hampshire. Gogol hasn’t given Ashoke and Ashima a phone number to reach him, meaning that he is completely separated from his Bengali family, completely lost in Maxine’s world. He celebrates his twenty-seventh birthday with the Ratliffs and friends of theirs he has never met. He realizes that no one really knows him, that they will forget him just as easily as they have come to know him.
Gogol views his relationship with Maxine as the height of his “American-ness” so far in his life. Maxine and her parents represent what Gogol sees as the best of American culture: the interest in art and physical affection and relational openness that Gogol has never known with his own biological family. Gogol gives himself over to this new way of life almost completely. Not only is he dating Maxine, but he begins living with the Ratliffs as well, spending holidays with them, allowing them to take the place in his life that would normally be occupied by family. They give him house keys and invite him to think of himself as an equal member of their household. He is, in a very real sense, substituting one family for another, becoming one of the Ratliffs as he withdraws from his own family. The choices he makes are a way of solidifying his American identity, and as he does so, he loses more and more of his Bengali identity.
Maxine’s lunch with Ashoke and Ashima is an external embodiment of the cultural tensions that Gogol has been feeling internally. Before the event, Ashima finds even Maxine’s nickname, “Max,” strange, objecting that “Max” is a boy’s name. Maxine proposes bringing wine for the meal, but Gogol responds that his parents don’t own a corkscrew. Gogol warns Maxine that his parents will be uncomfortable with displays of physical affection, but even so, Maxine has trouble restraining herself from running her hand through his hair. Things that feel normal to the Gangulis are startling to Maxine, and the reverse is true as well.
This tension between cultures does not in itself pose a threat to Gogol and Maxine’s relationship. Both of them are willing to put up with the occasional awkwardness, and Gogol is more than willing to leave behind parts of his cultural heritage to fit into Maxine’s world. What dooms them to failure is that Gogol has spent such a long time pretending he has no Bengali past, and Maxine believes him. Because Gogol wants so much to be “Nikhil,” he never gives Maxine an opportunity to know his complexities; when she finally does learn about his name change, she doesn’t realize its importance, dismissing it as “the cutest thing I’ve ever heard” and quickly forgetting about it. Gogol has been so effective in changing his identity that he has disguised himself from the woman who wants to love him.
As Gogol’s birthday in New Hampshire hints, his time as an adopted Ratliff can’t last forever. Although they want to function like Gogol’s family, the Ratliffs don’t know any of the history that makes Gogol who he is. They rarely bother to ask him about his past or his Bengali culture, and Lydia isn’t even sure whether Gogol was born in America. They’ve only ever known Gogol as “Nikhil,” and their ignorance of his old name is symbolic of their ignorance of everything about his life that preceded his time with them. Gogol’s birthday party is attended by strangers—not only people who have never met him before but also people like the Ratliffs, who have spent time with him and still don’t really know him. Meanwhile, because he hasn’t given the phone number of the New Hampshire house to his parents, Gogol has isolated himself from the people who have known him long enough and well enough to celebrate his birthday in a meaningful way.