It is 1994, and Gogol lives in New York now, having just graduated from the architecture program at Columbia. He works for a successful architecture firm and lives in a small studio in Morningside Heights, the first apartment he has ever had to himself. His parents are distressed by his small paycheck, and they occasionally send him money in the mail. They had hoped he would go to M.I.T., but he didn’t want to go back to Massachusetts and be in their world. Gogol had visited New York while at Yale, and once with his parents to visit Bengali friends in Queens, although they did not visit any landmarks at the time.
This leap forward in time catapults us into Gogol’s new life in New York. As his trip to the Taj Mahal foreshadowed, he has become an architect, and is now living independently – with continued support from his anxious parents. Gogol’s choice to be in New York is an explicit rejection of their world, and a striking out on his own. New York, that emblem of American culture, fascinates him in a way that his parents cannot understand.
One night a draftsman from his firm, Evan, invites Gogol to a party. Gogol assumes it will be a large, anonymous affair, but when they arrive, only a few people are left in the Tribeca loft. Gogol meets a striking girl named Maxine Ratliff, who studied art history at Barnard, and they begin to flirt. The next morning she calls him and invites him to dinner at her house, warning him that she lives with her parents and laughing off his worry that they will mind him coming over.
The entrance of Maxine into Gogol’s life is the beginning of a new era in his quest for a stable identity. The fact that Maxine lives with her parents is one sign of how different she is from him – while he has been working to find independence from his family, hers is a source of stability and the affirmation of identity, something that Gogol will be intensely drawn to.
When he arrives at the house with a bottle of wine, he is stunned by its Greek Revival architecture. Maxine greets him at the door after a few minutes, looking carelessly alluring, and leads him into the grand kitchen and dining area, where Gogol meets her mother, Lydia. He is awestruck by her elegance and the beauty of the house as Maxine gives him a tour. At dinner he meets Gerald, her father, as he is included in the careful ritual of the luxuriant, lingering family meal, so different from the ones he remembers from his own home. They discuss art, culture, his background, and India, emptying three bottles of wine. Maxine and Gogol hit it off, left alone to clean up afterward.
The opulence of Maxine’s home is intoxicating for Gogol, whose tiny studio and middle-class background have not prepared him for the easy wealth of her family. He is also attracted to the rituals of this life, so different from those of his past home. The wine stands in stark contrast to his parents’ traditional refusal of alcohol, and the easy, unhurried meal is the opposite of those his mother has prepared him. This place has a secure and stable identity that Gogol will long for as he pursues Maxine.
Almost effortlessly, Gogol becomes integrated into their lives. He is in love with Maxine, and with her lifestyle—expensive, rhythmic, elegant. The biggest difference between them, he feels, is not her messiness, but that she has never wished to be anyone else. She is always comfortable and without regrets as she discusses ex-boyfriends. Her relationship with her parents, one of admiration and emulation, is also completely different from his own. Gerald and Lydia, who are openly affectionate, remind Gogol of the distance in his own parents’ relationship, a distance that had always seemed normal, inevitable. When one day Maxine complains about his studio, asking him to move in with her, Gogol happily agrees, leaving just a nameless mailbox and an answering machine behind.
Maxine is innately comfortable in her own skin, a sensation that Gogol, who has always felt the friction of a divided identity, is immediately drawn to. While Gogol is prone to regret, indecision, and embarrassment, Maxine is casually confident, having never experienced any real alienation or insecurity. Gogol also envies Maxine’s easy and close relationship to her parents, contrasting it with the cultural distance that separates him from Ashoke and Ashima. Gerald and Lydia are emblematic of the kind of love—an affectionate, American kind—that Gogol’s parents never displayed openly.
Gogol soon makes a home of the Ratliffs’ house, running in the mornings with Gerald, taking their dog Silas out for walks, and helping them to prepare for dinner parties—minimalistic, elegant affairs that contrast in his mind with the noisy Bengali gatherings of his youth. At times Gogol feels conscious that his life there is somehow a betrayal of his parents, who do not know about Maxine, and who would never be comfortable in a place like this one.
As Gogol leaves behind his connection to his home – symbolized by the answering machine in his now empty apartment – he takes on this new identity willingly, becoming a natural part of the Ratliff family in a way that inspires some guilt within him. His parents could never live in this world, and he enjoys that.
Gerald and Lydia leave for their annual summer trip to New Hampshire, leaving Maxine and Gogol alone in the hot New York house, which they quickly colonize, making love in every room. In the evenings, Gogol swats at bugs and wishes for the mosquito nets he used to use in Calcutta. He does not go home all summer, using his busy work schedule as an excuse while spending all of his free time with Maxine.
Maxine and Gogol’s impulse to have sex in every room is a slight rebellion even for Maxine, who gets along with her parents so well. Gogol’s separation from his home grows as he uses a romantic relationship to make this new home a vital part of his identity – even as the mosquitoes constitute an annoying reminder of his past.
Finally Ashima calls him at work late one evening, asking him to come home and say goodbye to Ashoke before he leaves for a prestigious nine-month teaching fellowship in Ohio. Gogol is annoyed that she has called, at first lying and then admitting that he had already planned to leave with his girlfriend to meet her parents in New Hampshire. His mother pauses, hurt, and asks his girlfriend’s name. She is confused when he says “Max,” his nickname for Maxine. “That’s a boy’s name,” she replies.
Ashima’s call to Gogol’s office annoys him like the mosquitoes, breaking into the dream of his new life with Maxine. Ashima’s misunderstanding of the name Max is a sign of the cultural gap that separates her from Gogol’s world—and another instance of names as important motifs.
Gogol agrees that they will stop off at Pemberton Road for lunch on their way to New Hampshire. He warns Maxine that they will not be able to touch or kiss in front of his parents, and that there will be no wine with lunch—Ashima and Ashoke do not even own a corkscrew. Maxine is amused by the rules, and when they arrive he sees that his suburban home is totally foreign to her. She has brought a gift basket Gogol knows his parents will never open. Maxine admires Ashima’s sari, telling her that her own mother, Lydia, is a curator of textiles at the Met. Ashima does not understand that she is referring to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This meeting of the two worlds Gogol inhabits – as Gogol and as Nikhil – is intensely awkward for him, a fact that Maxine is hardly aware of. As with many children of immigrants, he is embarrassed by his parents’ traditional attitudes about love, and by having to explain them to Maxine. The gap between Maxine and Gogol’s parents is perfectly illustrated by Ashima’s misunderstanding of what the Met is – common cultural knowledge for most Americans.
Ashoke enters and insists that they move their rental car into the driveway so that it is not in the way of harm. Gogol is embarrassed by their fear of disaster and by the too-formal lunch they have prepared, but Maxine is charming as ever. Ashima is pleasantly surprised to hear she lives with her parents, a custom she misses. When it is time for them to leave, Gogol’s parents are a bit embarrassed by Maxine’s affectionate goodbye hugs. When his father says goodbye, Maxine notices he uses the name “Gogol,” which she has never heard before, but later, in the car, Gogol—whom she only knows as Nikhil—says it’s nothing. Gogol is relieved to be back in her world, headed to a corner of the country he has never visited before.
This encounter exposes the many small but important things that separate Maxine and the “new” Gogol from Ashoke and Ashima—from the way they express affection to the way they host guests. This is agonizing for Gogol, although again Maxine seems unaware of his embarrassment. He is keen to return to the safety of the new identity he has created with Maxine and her parents, and so barely takes the time to say farewell to his father, who is leaving for a fellowship in the Midwest – a decision that will haunt Gogol later in the novel.
They arrive at the beautiful lakeside house down a remote dirt road and find Gerald and Lydia, lounging with their books. Gogol and Maxine take up residence in a small, unfinished cabin outside the main house. Gogol has never had a vacation like this, which feels like camping. They spend all day in their bathing suits together, with visits from Maxine’s grandparents, Hank and Edith. On his runs around the lake with Gerald, Gogol sees the Ratliff family graveyard, where generations of the family are buried—where Maxine will be buried someday. At night he and Maxine go skinny-dipping in the lake, and make love on the grassy shore.
The Ratliff’s lakeside home, even more than their luxurious house in Manhattan, is a paradise for Gogol. This is an ancestral site for their family, as the graveyard makes clear, and so fulfills his fantasy for a settled, strong identity rooted in the past of a place. These traditions and family ties are similar to what Gogol’s parents might have provided him had he grown up in Calcutta (minus the graves). When he is here, though, Bengali traditions only seem alien and distracting to Gogol.
Gogol falls in love with the pattern of the days here, disconnected from the world. He draws the Ratliffs’ house, a drawing that they put on the mantelpiece and promise to frame. He is amazed at the sense of belonging that they have in this landscape, the secure feeling that allows them to leave all their doors unlocked—in contrast to his own parents, who have just installed an alarm at their home on Pemberton Road. The Ratliffs own even the moon above the lake, Gogol feels, and he is deeply drawn to the idea of returning to a single place year after year. This type of vacation is the opposite of the family road trips, expeditions from motel to motel, from his own memory.
Gogol’s drawing, treasured by the Ratliffs, is an echo of the drawings he used to place on his parents’ fridge at home, and another sign that this place has become his new home. He is amazed by their belonging in this landscape, where he and his parents have always felt insecure and alien. Every element of this place contrasts with Gogol’s memory of childhood with the Gangulis, a childhood that he now associates with the insecurity, embarrassment, and frustration of a divided identity he wishes to escape.
On one canoe journey across the lake, Maxine confides that this is where she lost her virginity, when she was fourteen. He thinks of his life at fourteen, when he was still Gogol—he has told her about this name now, which for her is merely a cute and forgettable fact from his past—and how different it was. Gogol pictures her past and future in this place: growing old, burying her parents in the family graveyard, teaching her children to swim in the lake.
Again we see the way in which Gogol’s attraction to Maxine is partly a product of the differences between them. His love for her is in some ways an expression of his own rejection of himself, and his desire to be fully “Nikhil.” The detail of his pet name is unimportant to Maxine, which suggests the extent to which he has hidden this part of himself.
They celebrate Gogol’s twenty-seventh birthday there, the first time he has not been with his parents on his birthday. Friends from around the lake come, and Gogol has an awkward interaction with one woman who asks at what age he moved to America from India. She seems confused to hear that he was born in Boston. As the toast is called and the party sings “Happy Birthday,” Gogol thinks briefly of his parents, but he does not call them. He is awoken that night by the sound of ringing in the main house and stumbles out of bed, mortified that Gerald and Lydia will be woken up by his parents, but it is just a dream. He remembers that his parents do not have his number—that here in the wilderness with Maxine, he is finally free.
The birthday party is in some ways the climax of Gogol’s acceptance into this second family, for which he has rejected his own. The illusion of a ringing telephone signals the slight guilt that Gogol still feels at having abandoned his family so completely, as well as foreshadowing the phone call that will, in the next chapter, disrupt his fantasy. The casual racism of the partygoer, who assumes Gogol is Indian-born, is another reminder that this life is, in fact, a fantasy—the privileges of “old money,” whiteness, and an American heritage will never truly belong to Gogol.