Book World: Nell Freudenberger’s ‘The Newlyweds’ explores cross-cultural tensions
By Ron Charles,
Eventually, Nell Freudenberger will have written so many wonderful books that we’ll stop gossiping about how success fell into the young woman’s lap at age 26.
The tale of her sudden fame is the stuff of writers’ fantasies — a nerdy version of Lana Turner being discovered on a soda fountain stool. In 2001, while working as an editorial assistant at the New Yorker, Freudenberger had her first story published in the magazine, along with an alluring photo of herself lounging on a purple blanket. Vogue and Elle swooned. (A lot of us did.) A bidding war broke out over her first — at the time, unwritten — book. Prizes and fellowships followed. Granta named her one of the Best Young American Novelists. “Hating Nell Freudenberger,” Curtis Sittenfeld wrote in Salon, “is a virtual cottage industry among ambitious literati.”
Her new book should ramp up that cottage industry to major envy manufacturing. “The Newlyweds” is a delight, one of the easiest book recommendations of the year. (An excerpt appeared in the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” series in 2010.) The cross-cultural tensions and romance so well drawn here recall the pleasures of Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane” and Helen Simonson’s “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.” On a recent trip to St. Louis, I read most of it out loud to my wife, and we both fell in love with Freudenberg’s Bangladeshi heroine.
As the story begins, Amina Mazid is living in Rochester, N.Y. It’s been six months since she left her parents back in Dhaka. Her new husband, George, is “a thirty-four-year old SWM who was looking for a wife” on AsianEuro.com. Because “he was a romantic,” they corresponded for almost a year before she flew to the United States. Now she’s sitting in her impossibly comfortable American house, trying to learn everything she can about her new country. “She was lucky,” Freudenberger writes, “because George corrected her and kept her from making embarrassing mistakes. Americans always went to the bathroom, never the loo. They did not live in flats or stow anything in the boot of the car, and under no circumstances did they ever pop outside to smoke a fag.” But as difficult as our colloquial phrases are, Amina finds American sarcasm and passive aggression even more mysterious: “Quarrels at home were explosive, public, and necessarily brief,” she notes. “In Rochester, Amina thought it might be possible to stay angry for a lifetime.”
Freudenberger’s story collection, “Lucky Girls,” and her first novel, “The Dissident,” displayed her sensitivity to the anxious interaction between Americans and people from other countries, and in this new novel she articulates that apprehension with winning comedy and poignancy. She’s that rare artist who speaks fluently from many different cultural perspectives, without preciousness or undue caution. Informed by her travels in Thailand, India and China, she understands the complicated negotiations that always attend contacts between people of radically different backgrounds, no matter how accommodating they claim to be.
Page by page, “The Newlyweds” explores the tangled misimpressions and deceptions that separate Amina and George — and sometimes bind them together. An electrical engineer with a penchant for useful factoids, George can sound bossy and condescending, and, let’s face it, there’s something suspicious about shopping for an attractive woman in a poor country. But Amina is far from a helpless mail-order bride lost in a strange land. The more we get to know her, the more we realize just how deliberately she’s carrying out a long and complicated plan that George — “just a piece of the puzzle” — barely comprehends. “She was not a little girl playing a game,” Freudenberger writes. “She was a twenty-four-year-old woman whose family’s future depended on this decision.”
Freudenberger knows Amina as well as Jane Austen knows Emma, and despite its globe-spanning set changes, “The Newlyweds” offers a reading experience redolent of Janeite charms: gentle touches of social satire, subtly drawn characters and dialogue that expresses far more than its polite surface. And how Freudenberger keeps the chapters moving is a mystery of perpetual motion: Waiting for a visa, waiting for a green card, waiting for a job, waiting for a citizenship test — these bureaucratic delays should be no more entertaining than standing in line, but in this lucidly plotted novel, they seem like high drama.
That success rests largely on the portrayal of Amina, a young woman who can’t shake the sense that she looks wrong. If only she could “dismiss her Deshi self entirely, ask it to wait in the hall,” she thinks. “It was possible to change your own destiny, but you had to be vigilant and you could never look back.” No one as dedicated to her parents as Amina is, though, could fail to look back. Indeed, much of the appeal of “The Newlyweds” is the way she and George negotiate the demands of their respective families with a mixture of affection and exasperation. Moving gracefully between the sterile suburbs of Rochester and the aromatic markets of Dhaka, the novel locates that unsettling inflection point when we shift from being cared for by our parents to caring for them, without ever losing the need to please them, to win their approval, to make them happy.
Suspended between two cultures, two homes 8,000 miles apart, Amina wonders if there’s an essential identity that exists “beneath languages.” She can’t escape her suspicion that the price of assimilation is too high — not just the loss of her Islamic faith and her friends and her food, but the abandonment of any sense of personal solidity. “You thought that you were the permanent part of your own experience, the net that held it all together,” she thinks, “until you discovered that there were many selves, dissolving into one another so quickly over time that the buildings and the trees and even the pavement turned out to have more substance than you did.”
As you can tell, “The Newlyweds” is ultimately less romantic than its title. George and Amina soon realize, as any couple must, that they don’t know as much about each other as they once believed. After all, an online algorithm is so primitive compared with the intimate knowledge a village matchmaker can offer a young couple in the villages of Bangladesh. On either side of the world, making a marriage work demands casting off not just old lovers but cherished fantasies about who we are. Whether these two alien lovebirds can — or should — do that is the question Freudenberger poses so beguilingly.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
THE NEWLYWEDS By Nell Freudenberger Knopf. 337 pp. $25.95