Saturday, September 22, 2012

Immigrant Song

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge

THE NEWLYWEDS Nell Freudenberger

Details, dilemmas and domestic discord have been at the core of so-called novels of realism almost from the beginning. Despite huge shifts in the way we see the world, they keep coming, these everyday sagas of characters facing ups and downs and undergoing changes in their efforts to win through. In a 2008 essay, Zadie Smith had written that if the genre was to survive, lyrical realists would have to push a little harder and try and discover new ways of representation. Nevertheless, such explorations are few and far between, and Nell Freudenberger’s new novel can’t be counted as being among them.

Within her chosen genre, however, Freudenberger has proved herself to be an accomplished practitioner, as her debut short story collection, Lucky Girls, and subsequent novel, The Dissident, amply demonstrate. As with those books, The Newlyweds takes as its theme the predicament of a stranger in a strange land, of the cultural shifts and changing attitudes that immigrants have to undergo.

This is the story of Amina, a 24-year-old woman from Bangladesh, who comes to the United States to marry George, a “34-year-old SWM”, the two having developed an online relationship after George responded to Amina’s post on a matrimonial site. Far from home, ensconced in Rochester, Amina learns to navigate the contours of a new relationship and country. She meets George’s family, including his adopted free-spirited cousin, Kim, takes classes at a local college as well as a succession of jobs, including those of a shop assistant, yoga school receptionist and coffee shop barista. George turns out to be a conservative, Casaubon-like creature and her relationship with him, while not wildly exciting or disappointing, proceeds much of the time on an even keel as they discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

By providing particulars of Amina’s reactions to the food, surroundings, weather and her various adjustments and discoveries, Freudenberger thickens the narrative and adds verisimilitude. Inevitably, these put one in mind of other such fiction, notably by Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali -- in whose accounts of displaced lives, it must be said, one finds more intimacy and granularity.

George and Amina’s conflicting points of view on living with family versus living alone provide one of the novel’s main pivots, allowing Freudenberger to explore differences in Western and Eastern attitudes. Finally, after three years in the United States, Amina returns to Bangladesh to bring her parents back with her. (The gifts she takes for her family and friends show Freudenberger’s eye for detail at its most acute.)  Back in her own country, Amina is immediately plunged into extended family squabbles and less-than-ideal living conditions. Here, she once again meets and is attracted to Nasir, a childhood friend – in fact, there’s a too-neat complementarity between this relationship and between that of George and Kim. Conflicts, though, are handled in an unvaryingly low-key and leisurely manner, as equations between Amina, George and her parents are played out.

One of the strengths of The Newlyweds is its nuanced rendering of cultural displacement; another is that Freudenberger sticks close to her characters without feeling the need to make overarching pronouncements. The Newlyweds checks all the right boxes, then, but in doing so it also emerges as a story that’s all too familiar. “It is only by sharing our stories that we become one community,” writes Amina in the novel’s closing lines, and while there’s no denying this sentiment, it’s also true that the tales that make the most impression are those that throw fresh light, or are rendered in fresh ways.

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