Last year, Nell Freudenberger, hailed by Granta as one of the Best Young American novelists and distinguished by the New Yorker as one of the “20 under 40,” released the novel The Newlyweds. Her previous two books were New York Times Book Review Notables. She received the Pen/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for her collection of stories, Lucky Girls. In The Newlyweds, Freudenberger has chosen the theme of an arranged marriage, something that has already been done to death in immigrant fiction. Given her credentials, readers may rightfully expect her to breathe new life into the subject and she has partly done so by using an unusual premise.
Freudenberger bestows her Bangladeshi protagonist, Amina, with a trait that will influence the trajectory of her future: she has a penchant for everything foreign. Amina is born in her grandmother’s village and is raised by her until she joins her parents in Dhaka at the age of six. She learns English at the Maple Leaf International School. Her father’s business schemes continually fail and money remains tight for the family. However, he is an incurable optimist, always ready to embark on a new project. At sixteen, Amina loves Nasir, the son of her father’s friend, who acts like a cousin. He is considered for Amina, but is dropped as a candidate because his prospects don’t sound promising. She supports her parents by tutoring students, surprising them one day with a TV she bought with her earnings. Her responsibility toward her parents, which never wanes through the course of the novel, is a redeeming feature in a protagonist who is not likeable. Freudenberger lets us get to know Amina’s childhood in retrospect; the story is concerned with her adult self.
At the age of twenty-four, Amina writes to several men she meets through a dating website, and, finally, corresponds exclusively with George. Amazingly, he fulfills her mother’s criteria for a husband. He is neither divorced nor a parent. “He had to have a bachelor’s degree and a respectable job, and he could not drink alcohol. He could not be younger than thirty or older than forty-five, and he must be willing to convert to Islam.” What is equally astonishing is that the parents don’t try to prevent their child from forming an alliance with an American she meets through the internet, even after he suddenly stops corresponding for a period. In fact the mother acts as an accomplice in her daughter’s matrimonial venture, analyzing George’s emails after they are translated by Amina. However, the reader is able to easily suspend disbelief–all kinds of people exist in the world and often some element of foolhardiness propels their actions.
George, who proudly confesses to his future wife that he cried over the death of his hamster and over Amina’s story that she tried to share an egg with her hard-up parents, turns out to be more appealing in the emails than in person. When he comes to Dhaka to meet Amina, she seems to be the only one whose guard is up. She asks her mother what is wrong with him, expecting, perhaps, that everything is too good to be true. Her mother is preoccupied with the practical concern about how they could bring him through the dirt road to their apartment complex if it rains. Elsewhere Freudenberger strives to create credibility by showing the mother worrying that Amina and George were not going to be “properly married.”
It is challenging for any talented writer, whether immigrant or not, to make immigrant experiences fresh and interesting. Freudenberger delivers a grim portrait of an inter-racial couple who have come together through modern means, and yet Amina likens her marriage to that of her grandparents. Another writer may have opted to include the correspondence of the couple, but other than a single email, Freudenberger only lets us know what George and Amina wrote about.
The rewards accrue gradually to the reader as she/he turns the pages and the characters’ lives unfold. Freudenberger’s strong narrative voice delivers a successful immigrant story. We want to know if Amina’s American dream will come true. “And now here she was in America, serving her husband a second helping of chicken pulao. In another three years her parents might be here, too, with a baby asleep in a solid American cradle upstairs. It was not impossible, she thought, as George complimented her on the meal. There were several paths to everything, and some of them were hidden when you started out. Her mother would say that God created those paths, but to Amina it seemed as if the paths were there; it was only that you need God to help you find them.”
As many immigrant fictional characters have before her, Amina struggles, working hard by taking a job and studying. Predictably, George turns out to be deceitful and the marriage flounders. To make matters worse husband and wife lose their jobs. It is to Amina’s credit that she doesn’t go to pieces, considering her marital predicament in a foreign country. When Amina goes back to Bangladesh to help her parents get a visa, Nasir returns as a love interest. What happens makes us reflect not just on whether Amina will return to her marriage and have a successful immigrant story, but on deception as well.
Employing the third person narrative, Nell Freudenberger keeps the protagonist center stage throughout The Newlyweds, never letting her disappear from the pages. As the novel progresses, we get pulled further into her mind. She emerges as more of an authentic Bangladeshi woman than she was at the outset. To Freudenberger’s credit, Amina possesses an individuality that doesn’t allow her to be typecast.
While reading the novel, I wondered how Freudenberger knew so much about Bangladeshi culture and what prompted her to create a Bangladeshi character. The author’s note, tacked on at the end, satisfied my curiosity. She thanks a co-passenger on a flight who freely told her about her life, which was the fodder for The Newlyweds. For someone who came to the culture first by accident and then, possibly, design (she visited Bangladesh), she has accomplished much. The story of the woman, who became her friend, has been transformed, and, in the end, it is the weight of the narrative, the heft of Amina’s life, that makes The Newlyweds a worthwhile read.