Nell Freudenberger's first novel, THE DISSIDENT, was a widely-praised exploration of what happens when a Chinese performance artist and political activist winds up seeking refuge in an equally fraught situation amid the domestic quandaries of a dysfunctional Los Angeles family. In her second book, THE NEWLYWEDS, Freudenberger again explores modern American culture through the eyes of an outsider --- in this case, a young woman from Bangladesh.
"THE NEWLYWEDS is bound to spark discussion --- about culture, assimilation, honesty and relationships --- just as Amina's clever voice and straightforward desires are bound to spark readers' sympathies."
Amina, whose childhood was characterized as much by her father's series of business ventures and failures as it was by a bustling city and an active family life, has felt for a long time that her best prospects for marital and personal success lie overseas. When she signs up for AsianEuro.com, a cross-cultural online dating service, it doesn't take long for her to connect with George, an older man from Rochester, New York, who manages to fulfill most of Amina's mother's requirements for a future son-in-law (pros: he has never been married and has no kids; cons: he still enjoys a Heineken or two during NFL games). He even promises to convert to Islam and get married in a mosque (after their legal marriage in front of a justice of the peace, of course).
But when Amina moves to Rochester and begins living with George, she discovers just how much she needs to adjust her expectations. Within weeks, George stops talking about conversion. And that Muslim wedding? It seems to fall off the radar screen once Amina gets her green card. Amina still harbors secret desires --- especially once she gets a job and starts to make her own money --- of sponsoring her parents' immigration to the United States and having her mother and father live with them. But that expectation needs to be adjusted, too: even the thought of living in a town neighboring his in-laws is unacceptable to George. What's more, George is, frankly, kind of boring, as is life in their run-of-the-mill suburban neighborhood.
As Amina responds to the chilly climate of Rochester and to her constantly shifting expectations of life in America, she also becomes aware of the growing dichotomy between her two selves: her Bangladeshi self and her new American one. "As a teenager…she had believed that she'd been born with a soul whose thoughts were in no particular dialect, and she'd imagined that, when she married, her husband would be able to recognize this deep part of herself…. Of course she hadn't counted on her husband being a foreigner, a person who called her honey rather than Munni. In a way, George had created her American self, and so it made sense that it was the only one he would see." This splitting of the self really lies at the heart of the novel's themes, as Amina begins to feel as foreign to herself as she fears she appears to others.
Freudenberger's subject is a very particular sort of marriage, but it's also on some level about marriage and relationships more generally. How do we change ourselves to fit the perception of the other? What secrets do we disclose, and which ones do we keep hidden? Amina uses "cultural differences" to account for conflicts and misunderstandings in her marriage, and she pities couples who don't have such an excuse. She also (particularly in one deftly-written scene that takes place while George watches football instead of engaging in an important discussion with Amina) uses the language barrier to her advantage, as she subtly uses her outsider status to get at least a little piece of what she wants.
THE NEWLYWEDS is bound to spark discussion --- about culture, assimilation, honesty and relationships --- just as Amina's clever voice and straightforward desires are bound to spark readers' sympathies.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 4, 2012