Summary

The novel jumps ahead several years. Gogol has moved to New York City, after graduating from Yale, and has also graduated from Columbia Architecture School. He works for a firm in Manhattan and lives in a tiny, cheap apartment near Columbia’s campus. Gogol enjoys working for the firm, and though his contributions to projects are small, he realizes that even these design elements contribute to their larger projects. At a party hosted by a friend, Gogol meets a woman named Maxine Ratliff. He feels instantly attracted to her, and the two of them talk for much of the evening. Maxine calls the day after the party and invites Gogol, alone, to dinner later that week, at her parents’ apartment in Chelsea, where she lives.

At the Ratliffs’ house, Gogol is awed by Maxine’s parents, Lydia and Gerald—their suavity and cultural knowledge, their ability to cook complex meals effortlessly. Gogol points out the various architectural features of the townhouse to Maxine, who is pleased to learn them. The dinner goes well, and Gogol falls swiftly for Maxine. He becomes part of the life of the house, and finds Maxine’s existence to have melded with his own. He spends more time with the Ratliffs, eating their food and talking with them. He rarely goes back to his studio uptown. He tells Maxine more of his own family’s history, and Maxine, though polite, is surprised at the rigidity, the “traditions” with which Gogol was raised. For example, Maxine is shocked that Gogol’s parents’ marriage was an arranged one.

Gogol communicates less frequently with his family, on the phone. He talks to his mother in the summer of 1994, however, and she reminds him that Ashoke has received a major honor, a visiting professorship at a college near Cleveland, for the upcoming academic year. Ashima asks if Gogol would come by the house in August to see Ashoke before he leaves. Gogol grudgingly agrees, since he has admitted to Ashima that he is dating someone named Maxine, and that the two of them are planning to meet up with Maxine’s parents at the family cabin in New Hampshire in August. Because Boston is en route, Gogol makes a plan to introduce Maxine to Ashima and Ashoke. Sonia, who (the reader learns) lives in California, will not be home for the gathering.

Ashima, Ashoke, Maxine, and Gogol eat together at the Gangulis' house. Gogol is mildly embarrassed by the food his mother serves (a heavy banquet of Bengali fare) and by his father’s informal appearance. But Maxine is unfazed. She learns more about Ashoke’s professorship in Cleveland, and about Ashima, who, the narrator relates, is now working at the local suburban public library. The meal ends, and Ashima and Ashoke give Gogol a sweater for his birthday, which will fall when he and Maxine are in New Hampshire. Before they leave, Maxine catches Ashoke calling ”Gogol” by his pet name, and she asks Gogol about it in the car. Gogol promises to explain the nickname to her later.

In New Hampshire, Gogol falls in love, again, with the Ratliffs’ way of life. Their country home is as rustic as their New York home is carefully appointed. Gogol spends his two weeks with Maxine, Gerald, and Lydia, lounging by the lake, learning to paddle a canoe, cooking meals with the supplies they’ve brought from New York City. On his birthday, his 27th, the Ratliffs throw a party and invite their friends from cabins around the lake. At the party, during an otherwise lighthearted conversation, Lydia asserts to the other neighbors that Gogol was born in America, then asks Gogol directly if he was. Gogol is unhurt by the incident, but the conversation moves quickly on. Later that night, asleep with Maxine in their small, one-room guest house, Gogol rises with a start, thinking he hears a phone ringing. Perhaps, he believes, his mother is checking in on him. She is alone in the house in the Boston suburbs, Ashoke having departed recently for his temporary post in Cleveland. But Gogol realizes he has not given the Ratliffs’ vacation number to his mother. He goes back to sleep.

Analysis

Gogol ‘srelationship with Maxine becomes one of the major plot-points of the novel. Maxine’s upbringing is about as different from Gogol’s as possible. Her parents are not, like Gogol’s parents, immigrants to the United States. They are urbane New Yorkers, well-versed in the latest museum shows, political scandals, and matters of literary interest. They cook European-style foods with difficult-to-find ingredients. They drink copious amounts of wine, and talk at the dinner table late into the night. Their cultivated manner, and wealth, mean that they do not need to be formal, the way Gogol’s parents are. Indeed, Gerald and Lydia seem the perfect hosts—content, even, to let Gogol stay over with Maxine most nights.

Gogol is seduced by his life with Maxine. It is easy to live with her parents, in the beautiful townhouse in Chelsea. It is easy to neglect his studio uptown, where there is little to interest him, and where he and Maxine rarely sleep. Whereas Gogol must focus on his career, and make money to support himself, Maxine has few professional aspirations to speak of, and she keeps herself busy through conversation, parties, and engagement with the artistic communities of New York. Her leisure, then, becomes Gogol’s leisure—at least when he’s not at the firm. It is the first such luxury Gogol has experienced.

It should be noted, however, that Maxine, despite her immense privileges, does not condescend to Gogol, and certainly not to his family. Although she does not always understand Bengali traditions, her interest in learning more about Ashoke and Ashima’s life, in their visit to the Boston suburbs, seems quite genuine. We learn of Maxine through Gogol —she is frequently described as Nikhil sees her and understands her. Nikhil views the Ratliffs, in Chapter Six, as an opportunity to comprehend more of upper-class life in New York City. But through the Ratliffs, Gogol will also learn more of what it meant to grow up a Ganguli, a child of immigrant parents.

Gogol contrasts, for example, the vacations his family used to take, like the one to Calcutta long ago, to the Ratliffs’. For the Gangulis, vacations were scenes of family bonding. It didn’t matter whether Gogol and Sonia were always comfortable as they shuffled from house to house in Calcutta. What mattered, instead, was that both children saw their aunts and uncles and cousins. The purpose of vacation was the maintenance of family bonds. Relaxation was not a part of it. In New Hampshire, however, at the Ratliffs’ lake house, relaxation is the primary purpose of the vacation. There is nothing more to one’s day than lounging, swimming, talking, eating good food. Gogol realizes that the Ratliffs’ philosophy of life is fundamentally different from that of the Gangulis. Life, for Gerald and Lydia, is about intellectual enjoyment and stimulation, not about familial obligation.

The last scene of the chapter is an important one. Gogol wakes up in the middle of the night and fears, first, that he is ignoring his mother, who he knows is alone in the house back in Massachusetts. But he realizes that Ashima cannot contact him in Maine, and this does not frighten Gogol. It consoles him. He wants to be alone with Maxine and her family; he wants to talk to their neighbors and ignore, to the extent possible, his family, which is now scattered across the country (Ashima near Boston, Ashoke in Ohio, Sonia in California). Gogol believes that with Maxine, in New York and New Hampshire, he is breaking away from the Gangulis, just as Ashoke broke away from his own family in Calcutta, and moved across the world to study at MIT. Interestingly, Maxine has done the opposite: she has remained as close to her family as possible, vacationing with them, staying in their apartment. Maxine does not worry that she is too closely involved in the lives of her parents. Rather, she welcomes that closeness, and wishes to include Gogol in it. Gogol has, in essence, exchanged his Bengali family for a provisional New York family. And he doesn’t mind that transformation at all. He welcomes it.


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