The year is 1968, and Ashima Ganguli, a Bengali woman who has recently moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts with her new husband, is about to give birth. Her husband, Ashoke, accompanies her to the hospital in a taxi. In the waiting room of the hospital, Ashoke remembers how in 1961, as he was taking the train from Calcutta to Jamshedpur to visit his grandfather and collect the books he was to inherit from him, there was an accident and he had nearly died. On the train, he had been reading a collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol, a Russian author, when the locomotive engine and seven bogies derailed, causing Ashoke's car to be flung into a nearby field. Rescue workers found Ashoke because of the book page he clutched in his hand.
Their baby boy is born in the morning. Ashima and Ashoke want to wait to name him until a letter arrives from Ashima's grandmother with two name options: one for a boy and one for a girl. It is the Bengali tradition to have a respected elder choose the name of a child. However, it is time to leave the hospital and the letter has not arrived, so they decide to make up a pet name that will be used until they can officially name their baby based on his grandmother's wishes. Ashoke chooses Gogol, the name of the author whose stories he was reading when the train crashed years before. Ashima and Ashoke hold a rice ceremony for Gogol when he is six months old. Six months later, the Gangulis are planning a visit to India. Ashima's brother Rana calls with the bad news that her father has suffered a heart attack and died. Ashima is extremely upset and they decide to go to Calcutta six weeks earlier than they had planned for the funeral.
By 1971, the Gangulis have moved from Harvard Square to a university town outside Boston. After two years in university-subsidized housing, Ashima and Ashoke decide to buy a home. The new house is on Pemberton Road, and there are no Bengali neighbors. On the first day of Gogol's kindergarten, his parents tell the principal, Mrs. Lapidus, that she should call Gogol by his formal name, "Nikhil." But she overhears them referring to him as "Gogol" and asks him what he would like to be called. When he answers "Gogol," it sticks. Ashima gives birth to Gogol's little sister, Sonia, in May. In the next years, Ashoke finds out about the deaths of both his parents and Ashima finds out about the death of her mother. They learn about these deaths by phone call.
On Gogol's fourteenth birthday, his father comes into his room and gives him his birthday present: The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol. Gogol is more interested in listening to the Beatles than looking at the book, and he is unable to appreciate it. Ashoke begins to tell Gogol about the train accident that made him appreciate the author Gogol so much, but stops because he realizes Gogol cannot yet understand. Gogol stashes the book away when his father leaves. The next year, the Gangulis decide to go to Calcutta for eight months while Ashoke is up for sabbatical at the university. Gogol begins his junior year of high school in the fall, taking English with Mr. Lawson. Mr. Lawson knows about the Russian author Gogol and assigns the class to read one of his short stories, "The Overcoat."
The summer before he leaves for college at Yale, Gogol goes to probate court and legally changes his name to Nikhil. Gogol goes to Yale and introduces himself as Nikhil; however, it takes a while before he really feels like Nikhil. He begins to date a girl named Ruth, but they grow apart while she is studying abroad at Oxford. The next Thanksgiving, Ashoke tells Gogol about the origin of his name; about the train accident in which he was almost killed. Gogol asks him if he reminds him of that night that he almost died, and his father says no; he reminds him of "everything that followed."
By 1994, Gogol is living in a tiny apartment in New York working as an architect. He begins to date a woman named Maxine Ratliff. Her parents, Lydia and Gerald, are incredibly wealthy, and they interact in a casual but intelligent way that is totally opposite the behavior of Gogol's own parents. He begins spending most of his time at their home rather than at his own apartment, and he feels effortlessly incorporated into their lives. Eventually, he basically moves into their home with them. Ashima calls to ask him to visit them to see his father off before he leaves to spend nine months at a university outside Cleveland, but the most Gogol will do is stop in for lunch with Maxine on their way to her parents' lake house in New Hampshire.
While Ashima is addressing Christmas cards one quiet day, Ashoke calls at 3 pm and tells her he is at the hospital. His stomach has been bothering him all day, so he has driven himself to the hospital to get it checked out. After two hours, she has not heard from Ashoke and so she calls the hospital. An intern tells her that Ashoke has "expired." He has died from a massive heart attack. Gogol flies to Ohio to identify his father's body and clean out his apartment. The next morning, he flies home to Boston to be with his mother and Sonia. At the house on Pemberton Road, many people come by to sit with them in mourning. Sonia decides to live there with her mother for a while.
A year after Ashoke's death, Gogol has broken up with Maxine. Ashima encourages him to call Moushumi Mazoomdar, the daughter of family friends whom Gogol has grown up around at family parties. She tells him that she moved to Paris to study French literature, and then moved to New York to follow her ex-fiancé, an American named Graham. After the fight that ended their engagement, Moushumi had taken the rest of the semester off from NYU and mourned, finally returning to school in the fall. It was then that she had met Gogol. Gogol and she begin to date seriously.
Within a year of dating, Gogol and Moushumi get married in New Jersey in a ceremony that is almost entirely planned and managed by their parents. They move into an apartment together and get used to married life. They go to Paris in March together; Moushumi is presenting a paper at a conference, so Gogol accompanies her as a vacation. While there, he feels lonely because Moushumi is so obviously at home in the city. Two days after their first wedding anniversary, Moushumi comes across a resume at the university from a man named Dimitri Desjardins whom she knows from her teenage and college years. Moushumi begins having an affair with Dimitri on Mondays and Wednesdays, after she teaches her class. Gogol knows nothing of his wife's affair with Dimitri. He has the vague feeling that something is not right in his marriage with Moushumi, but he can't put his finger on what.
A year later, before Christmas of the year 2000, Ashima is preparing food for the party she will throw that evening. She has decided to move out of the house on Pemberton Road to spend six months at a time in Calcutta with her family and six months in the United States with her children and friends. The reader learns from Ashima's point of view that Sonia and Ben are going to be married in Calcutta in a little over a year, and that Gogol and Moushumi decided to get a divorce. Gogol arrives at the train station before Sonia and Ben are there to meet him. He remembers the year before, how on the train ride from New York to the house at Pemberton Road he had discovered Moushumi's affair with Dimitri. They had spent the holiday at the house on Pemberton Road as planned, but she had left the day after Christmas to go back to New York, and when Gogol returned to the apartment days later, she had packed up and left for good. Now, arriving at the train station a year later, he sees Sonia and Ben pulling up in his mother's car to take him to the house one last time.
Party guests arrive and Gogol goes back to his old bedroom and discovers the book his father had given him so many years ago on his birthday: the collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol. At the time, he had had no appreciation for it and hadn't even read a single story. Now, he sees the inscription his father has written inside: "The man who gave you his name, from the man who gave you your name." He takes his time, not going downstairs with the camera just yet; he sits down and begins to read “The Overcoat.”