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. She begins to have her first contractions while cooking in the kitchen, and her husband, Ashoke, accompanies her to the hospital in a taxi. When they get there, Ashoke leaves Ashima in the bed surrounded by the nurses and waits with the other husbands. Ashima uses a watch gifted to her by one of her family members to keep track of the length of her contractions.
A friendly nurse, Patty, brings Ashima lunch and then leads her on a walk around the hospital to try to ease the delivery along. As she walks, Ashima remembers how she was introduced to Ashoke in Calcutta by their parents. Before she entered the room where he was waiting, she slid her feet into his shoes that had been left by the door. That moment felt especially intimate to her. After they were betrothed, she learned his name. They were married in a traditional Indian ceremony, and now that they live in Cambridge, they have finally gotten to know each other and to become fond of each other.
In the waiting room of the hospital, Ashoke is pacing like the other husbands and reading the Boston Globe. He remembers how he loved to read while he was growing up, and how his grandfather instructed him to read all the works of the famous Russian authors. 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. He made conversation with another man in his cabin, a middle-aged businessman named Ghosh. Ghosh advised him to travel the world and see as much as he could before settling down with a family. When it is time for bed, Ashoke stayed up reading Gogol. He was reading 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. After his slow recovery, Ashoke decided to apply for engineering school in the United States. When he got in, his family was appalled, but he went with a fellowship.
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.
They bring Gogol home from the hospital and are welcomed by their landlords who live upstairs, Alan and Judy Montgomery and their daughters Amber and Clover. Just days later, Ashoke returns to work at MIT and Ashima is alone during the days with Gogol. She keeps in touch with her family in Calcutta by writing letters. In November, her father writes to her to tell her that her grandmother has had a stroke and has lost her mind.
Ashima and Ashoke hold a rice ceremony for Gogol when he is six months old. All their Bengali friends come over and they host a little party in which Gogol is fed his first solid food. He is also offered some dirt, a dollar bill, and a ballpoint pen; whichever item he reaches for is meant to indicate his profession. He'll either be a landowner, a businessman, or a scholar. However, he does not reach for any of the items.
Six months later, the Gangulis are planning a visit to India. Ashima knits her father a cardigan and sweater-vests for the other men in her family. She buys gifts for her whole family and accidentally leaves them on the train; she panics, but is reassured when Ashoke calls the station and her goods are all returned. However, not long after, her 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.
However, the novel is written in the third-person voice, the implied point of view changes. This allows background information to be provided almost anecdotally. When Ashima's point of view is implied, Ashoke appears to the reader as he might to Ashima; likewise, when Ashoke's point of view is implied, the reader experiences the other characters as they seem to Ashoke. When Gogol begins to develop a reasoning mind, his point of view begins to be implied as well. This technique gives the story depth, as it unfolds as if told by the characters.
The important theme of name and identity is introduced at the very beginning of Chapter 1, when Ashima calls out for her husband from the bathroom. She doesn't use his name when she calls for him, since "it's not the type of thing Bengali wives do." Their husbands' names are considered too intimate to be used. In Chapter 2, the Bengali tradition of pet names, or daknam and "good" names, or bhalonam, is explained. Only close family uses the pet name in the privacy of the home, while the "good" name is used in formal situations like work. Ashima and Ashoke have to give their son a pet name as they wait for the "good" name suggestions to arrive from Ashima's grandmother, but the letter from Calcutta never comes.
The language barrier that is to be the source of much struggle for Ashima and Ashoke is evident when they arrive at the hospital for Gogol's birth. After she has been given a bed, Ashima looks for her husband, but he has stepped behind the curtain around her bed. He says, "I'll be back," in Bengali, a language none of the nurses nor the doctor speaks. The curtain is a physical barrier, but it represents the symbolic barrier created by speaking Bengali in the United States.
The words the American husbands at the hospital speak to their wives demonstrate the culture barrier between India and the United States. They say that they love their wives and comfort them with intimate words, while Ashima knows that she and Ashoke will not exchange those types of words since "this is not how they are."
The theme of alienation, of being a stranger in a foreign land, is prominent throughout the novel. Throughout her pregnancy, which was difficult, Ashima was afraid about raising a child in "a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare." Her son, Gogol, will feel at home in the United States in a way that she never does. When Gogol is born, Ashima mourns the fact that her close family does not surround him. It means that his birth, "like most everything else in America, feels somehow haphazard, only half true." When she arrives home from the hospital, Ashima says to Ashoke in a moment of angst, "I don't want to raise Gogol alone in this country. It's not right. I want to go back."