Friday, October 12, 2012

The Newlyweds

Nell Freudenberger's new book, The Newlyweds, is yet another mark of her literary achievements. Freudenberger is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and the Pen/Malamud Award.  She first came on the scene at the age of 26, when one of her short stories was published in The New Yorker. She has since been named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists and one of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40."

Like Lucky Girls, her 2003 collection of short stories, The Newlyweds deals with the immigrant experience, complete with the expectations and realities of living in the U.S.  The narrative centers on the marriage of a 20-something young Bangladeshi woman, Amina, and her somewhat older American husband, George.  Amina and George first meet on an online dating site. Both are looking for a foreign match--Amina, in order to bring her near-destitute parents to America and George because he has not met an American woman to his liking.  The couple engages in a year-long correspondence, culminating in George's visit to Bangladesh and subsequent proposal.

As the story unfolds, we are introduced to Amina's extended family and former love-interest, Nasir--a man she gave up to marry George.  Similarly, we learn more about George, a decent but rather lack-luster engineer whose previous romances have ended in failure. In marrying, they both embark on a difficult cross-cultural relationship. Amina's closeness and feelings of responsibility to her parents baffle George.  He wants to start a family but strongly disagrees with Amina concerning the issue of her parents living with them. Ultimately, Amina wants George to sponsor her parents' immigration to the United States.

Freudenberger takes us through four years of their marriage, culminating in Amina's citizenship.  At that point, Amina and George are living in separate bedrooms because George has been deceitful about his past.  This seems to be a turning point for them both:  George realizes he loves and needs Amina and Amina has now become independent-minded, more educated and more mature.  Her various jobs have given her a sense of some financial independence.  Her current job--at Starbucks--provides her with benefits now needed when George loses his own job. This event puts their relationship on a different footing.

When Amina returns to Bangladesh to bring her parents back to Rochester, New York, the author paints a picture of that country that is quite harrowing.  The disparities between rich and poor, village and city life, and the complexities of family relationships are starkly drawn.  Equally shocking is a close look at a justice system that allows men to disfigure women with acid.  It is not surprising that Amina has wanted to leave her homeland and everything connected with it since she was a girl.

In an interview for the New York Times Book Review Podcast (April 29, 2012), Freudenberger discusses the real-life story that was an inspiration for the novel.  On a trip to Rochester, New York to visit to her grandmother, the author meets a young, Bangladeshi woman and an American man.   They are her seat-mates. Thus begins a friendship and collaboration between the author and the woman that spans five years and culminates in this novel. The Newlyweds is based on stories accrued during those years of their correspondence and Freudenberger's subsequent visit to Bangladesh.

The Newlyweds has an engaging plot and offers a realistic depiction of life as a new immigrant. Whether you like books about relationships or tales of foreign lands, you are sure to enjoy this new work by a promising young writer.

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