Did you register, dear viewer, that Downton Abbey had two characters named Thomas B: the malignant footman turned loyal butler Thomas Barrow, and the socialist chauffeur turned son-in-law Tom Branson? And if it did, did it bother you?
Chances are the answer is no—unless you happen to be Benjamin Dreyer.
What’s your name? Mine is Viet Thanh Nguyen, although I was born in Vietnam as Nguyen Thanh Viet. Whichever way you arrange my name, it is not a typical American name. Growing up in the United States, I was encouraged by generations of American tradition to believe that it was normal, desirable and practical to adopt an American first name, and even to change one’s surname to an American one.
Of course, that raises the question — what exactly is an American name?
Despite the moral assurance and personal flattery that meritocracy offers to the successful, it ought to be abandoned both as a belief about how the world works and as a general social ideal. It’s false, and believing in it encourages selfishness, discrimination and indifference to the plight of the unfortunate.
English was a language she strove to interpret and make perfect. It stood for a culture that had to be mastered and was part of a continuous struggle, even though she loved it. Italian became Lahiri’s way out of that struggle, into a world where she could make mistakes, but also a world of freedom and exploration. In doing so, she became “free, light.” She rediscovered, she says, the very reason for which she writes.
Many first novels fall into one of two categories: the campus novel, or the dysfunctional family novel. The Altruists combines the two, but don't let that put you off. Ridker elevates his book with a sharp eye for the absurdities of contemporary American culture and his characters' irksome pieties, though his ironic sensibility is offset with a good measure of compassion.