Few could accuse literary fiction of not doing its best to perk up the US export sector recently. It has been a truly remarkable year. A quick glance at my shelves reveals some wonderful new finds: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, We the Animals by Justin Torres, Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead and recently Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. Joining them this summer – although a second novel rather than a debut like the above – is Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds.
Exactly like the others, however, The Newlyweds comes already wreathed with praise from across the pond. And well deserved too. To my mind it draws parallels with another heavy-hitting US release this year, though at the opposite end of the career spectrum, namely Anne Tyler’s The Beginner’s Goodbye, not least for the cut-glass clarity of its prose. However, whereas Tyler focused on the aftermath of a marriage’s end, Freudenberger is concerned with the start of one. Amina Mazid is a twenty-four-year-old Bangladeshi who finds an American husband, George Stillman, through an online dating site. An engagement follows and before long she finds herself having to adapt to married life in Rochester, New York.
There is some sharp comedy as America is sieved through Amina’s preconceptions, the many ‘cultural differences’ she discovers. She finds herself, for instance, perplexed at old people’s homes:
‘Amina had wondered if the perversely named old-age “homes” would turn out to be a similar sort of myth, but George had confirmed their existence…[he] had agreed with her that it was very sad, the way that Americans shut up their parents and grandparents even when there was nothing wrong with them, and Amina had reported that attitude back to her parents…What she hadn’t understood until George explained it was that Americans didn’t like to live with anybody besides their spouses and their children.’
This America of ‘the Gap’ and ‘Radio Shack’ is a new experience and, by virtue of absorbing its rhythms via her studies at a local college and a job at Starbucks, Amina finds herself increasingly estranged from the person she once was. The only links are occasional emails from a former suitor, Nasir, and constant phone calls with her parents who see their daughter and her citizenship as the way to escape to a better life in the States.
The first three sections in the US jog along nicely, sprinkled here and there with some unwelcome surprises for Amina about George’s romantic past. Freudenberger authentically evokes the bubble-wrapped world of Rochester life and the troubles lurking beneath it. Wider political issues – being a Muslim in post-9/11 America – are touched on without swamping the narrative, and the daily dramas of newly married life skilfully portrayed.
There is some unevenness, however. Everything is witnessed from Amina’s perspective which occasionally leaves the character of George feeling slightly undercooked. It is perhaps no surprise then that the strongest section of the book – the fourth and final one, ‘A Proposal’ – sees Amina return to Bangladesh and features George as only a bit part. The division in Amina’s character – the American versus the Bangladeshi – come into direct confrontation as she returns to her parent’s village in order to spirit them away to America only to find herself freshly immersed in the dramas she thought she’d left for good.
Amina’s bickering parents are vibrant and colourful, complemented by arguably the most fully realized male character, Nasir. The tension in the relationship between Amina and Nasir, an eloquent embodiment of the strain between what she has gained in the US against the attractions of the life she has left behind, is intensely moving, never more so than in the closing scene. But it is the final sentence of the novel that unlocks the key to what Freudenberger is doing, I think, both genuine and deceptive at the same time: ‘it is only by sharing stories that we truly become one community’. The importance of stories, whether real or fabricated, recurs throughout. Stories are invented, disproved, lived and shattered. But this impressive and rewarding novel attests to the deep human need for them nonetheless.
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger is published by Penguin (£12.99)