Reviewed by Sheheryar B. Sheikh
Until very close to the halfway point in the novel, The Newlyweds reads like a formula-ridden slice-of-life desi-immigrant novel, except that it’s not written by a desi. Until that point, it develops like a lukewarm and stolid tale told by a white author diving into what seems for her a challenge — living in the skin of another ethnicity. It even seems, until that point, like a ridiculously long exercise in an imaginary introduction to a desi-novel writing course. But just past that point, everything shifts within a few pages and suddenly the book’s plot, narrative and language all start peaking — it boils, it screams, it makes the reader sit up with wide-open eyes. That Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds cannot hope to sustain that fever pitch is a given. But it’s a daring experiment with the conventions of the postcolonial novel, and one for which Freudenberger deserves many sold copies, and many new readers signing up on her Facebook fan page.
The story starts in Bangladesh, where Amina Mazid is preparing to move to Rochester, New York, where she will get married to a White American, George Stillman. They met through the website AsianEuro.com, and courtship extended into a proposal within months. Amina’s transition from the Bangladeshi village, where she is entrenched in extended family politics, to Rochester keeps backtracking to her childhood, layering her character with traits that serve as both refrains for later, and give narrative authority to Freudenberger to tell the story through a Bangladeshi (“Deshi” in the novel) character.
Amina eases without too much drama into her new life in Rochester. She meets and greets all of George’s miniscule (by comparison to her own) social circle; gets hired at a book and media shop, then laid off, then hired at a Starbucks; joins a community college where she learns how to speak colloquial and proper American English; and so on and so forth. All quotidian and prosaic stuff. But the language in which this dull material is conveyed is a highlight, for example this sentence about one of Amina’s many universally applicable insights: “That was a characteristic of her grandmother’s too — one that her mother had always mocked and then suddenly folded into her own personality without even noticing.”
But nothing much is happening in the novel, and the pages are flying by. Where’s the story? Where’s the meat? Surely it cannot be limited to how homesick Amina is becoming and her resolute plan of bringing her parents across to Rochester finally materialising and that being the happily ever after. That surely cannot be it. For a while though, it seems to be the only thing driving the novel. And then deftly, with a brushstroke here and a phrase there, Freudenberger manages one of the neatest twists in recent literary history. And thus, the heat on everything is turned up.
The magic starts. The patience pays off, for both the writer and the reader. The carefully crafted world begins to shake, and dangerous splinters appear where domestic safety was a given. There has been a natural disaster. The marital harmony that George and Amina were working toward, with careful resolutions of their minor cultural collisions, is now at stake. George’s secret is revealed, one that only the most astute readers will pick up on early, but one that seems organic to the narrative as well as surprising. It involves an adopted cousin of George’s, and as with all American narratives involving transgressions, sexual infidelity is the topic at hand.
Amina’s reaction is immediate. She confronts both the perpetrators in turn. With Kim, George’s cousin, she comes up with another perceptive thought: “She’d noticed it ever since she’d arrived in America, not only in life but on television. You might cheat, steal, lie, but if you confessed, you could be instantly forgiven — as if the bravery it took to admit it made the thing itself all right.”
Freudenberger could have taken the easy way out and made the latter part of the novel much shorter and all about resolving the crisis. Instead, she kicks the narrative up a notch by dealing with the aftermath of the revelation — its effect on Amina’s sense of self as different from the Bangladeshi woman married to the American George, and the change in the equation of the marriage. Amina refuses to sleep in the same room as George until her parents have migrated to Rochester. She keeps sending some money back home as well, and the date for her citizenship interview keeps coming closer, which means soon she can sponsor her parents for immigration.
For any American to understand the daunting prospect of immigration to the United States, and to effectively convey it, is a superb achievement. Freudenberger believably represents realistic fears and doubts that someone in Amina’s position would feel once she decides to go back to Bangladesh to bring her parents across the world. Is it even the right thing to do? Would they have a better life in Rochester? These are questions that come up, and they remain questions, which is a credit to the author’s understanding of character and her confidence in letting the reader understand the immense complexity of these questions.
On her trip back to collect her parents from Bangladesh, Amina comes up against another strong male character, and a childhood crush, Nasir. Some feelings develop, and a thread is carried part of the way to consummation. But then it is snipped. Similarly, a family feud between Amina’s father and his cousins escalates so that the three of them — Amina and her parents — have to hide out of sight in Nasir’s apartment before the parents’ visas are stamped. The bittersweet ending of Amina leaving Bangladesh forever, in a final airport scene, seems contrived, as if it’s there just for the sake of producing a literary climax. But the author can be forgiven this impulse.
The novel’s major flaw is its title. The Newlyweds does not fit. The book isn’t about the newly married couple. It is about Amina, her fracturing and reforming identity and the choices she makes when she finds the will to make choices. A better title would have been the singular The Newlywed. That the other half of the couple is a half-developed American character fits within the overall aim of a novel with that title, and not the plural one.
In the acknowledgements, and in interviews since the publication and critical success of this novel, Freudenberger has revealed that it is based on the real story of someone she met on a flight, and with whom she became good friends. The credit for The Newlyweds still belongs to the author, for though there are many stories that fellow travellers could share with each other, they seldom make it to print in the form of such a well crafted and extremely readable book.
The reviewer teaches rhetoric at LUMS
By Nell Freudenberger
352pp. Price not listed
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