They say inspiration strikes in the unlikeliest of places. Years ago, author Nell Freudenberger met a young Bangladeshi woman on a flight. As it turns out, this new immigrant, who would later become Freudenberger's friend, was traveling to the United States to marry an American man she had only met online. Years later, this real-life story became the basis for Freudenberger's short story "An Arranged Marriage," published in The New Yorker. With her friend's permission, that same story has come to form the heart of Freudenberger's second novel, The Newlyweds.
As the story opens, Amina is settling into her home in upstate New York with her soon-to-be husband George. She has come to the United States on the condition that George will convert to Islam, and that they will have a "proper" Muslim wedding in a nearby mosque or, at the very least, at the local Islamic center.
Back home in Bangladesh, Amina enjoyed a solid middle-class upbringing and, until recently, had been coaching students for difficult exams. It was thought that Amina would marry Nasir, the son of her parents' friends, but the young Nasir, just returned from the UK, wasn't the match Amina or her parents had expected him to be. His years in the UK seemed to have made Nasir a deeply religious person, something Amina and her parents were uncomfortable with. "I expected a Londoni and instead I found a mullah at the door," her father said when Nasir returned. At the time, Amina's parents had been struggling financially: her father, incompetent as the primary breadwinner, lost quite a bit of money in shady schemes cooked up by remote members of his family.
So when Amina and George find each other through a matchmaking website, the promise of a life rebooted elsewhere, not just for Amina but for her parents as well, seems too tantalizing a prospect to pass up. George travels to Bangladesh to see Amina in person and the deal is sealed. Amina will travel to the United States and marry George, get her citizenship papers in order, and shortly thereafter bring her parents over.
Yet, we all know what they say about best-laid plans. The trying economic times in the United States mean uncertainty for Amina and George. The minimum-wage job Amina finds doesn't last long when the mall bookstore shuts down. George also loses his seemingly secure job as an engineer. As the goal of bringing her parents to the United States becomes increasingly difficult and even unrealistic, Amina is torn between her desi self - the indigenous part of her that feels loyal to her parents - and the new American life she has slowly grown to love:
"She struggled to find some connection between the girl she so often imagined at home in her parents' apartment and this American wife, using the dishwasher and the washing machine, checking her e-mail on the living room computer," Freudenberger writes. "The task was made more difficult by the fact that there was no one in Rochester who'd know that past-Munni, and no one back at home who knew the present one. Sometimes she wondered whether the two girls would simply grow farther and farther apart, until one day they didn't even recognize each other." Eventually, Amina must travel back to Bangladesh to sort out the situation at home and to figure out what the future will hold for her and her family.
Freudenberger, who rocketed to fame with her short story collection, Lucky Girls, has created a gem of a novel in The Newlyweds. This is a story about a great many things: the cowardice that makes one take the easy ways out in life; the tentative daily adjustments a husband and wife forge, until one day the present together seems much more real than their previous individual lives; the difficult compromises life throws at us; and the evolution of the self not just in a marriage but as a person separate and distinct from one's parents. To Freudenberger's credit, she visits all these challenges with quiet grace. Don't expect any pyrotechnics here, just subtle character growth.
Readers hoping to find a dramatic story about culture clash will be disappointed. The Newlyweds does not promote stereotypical notions of South Asian life; there are no mangoes or monsoons or exotic spices here, although Freudenberger, who visited Bangladesh for her research, does have some lovely descriptions of Dhaka and the Bangladeshi countryside.
As a South-Asian American, I found The Newlyweds to be an authentic telling of the immigrant experience, especially good at tracing the evolution of one woman as she tries to shake off her native skin and get comfortable in her new American one. The smallest gestures - Amina's irritation at the dramatic way her mother narrates everyday happenings; her frustration at having to help her parents understand her economic situation without overly worrying them; even her parents' insistence on hearing only the rosy side of Amina's experience (they will it so because they want it so) - are all so true to form that it's hard to believe that they come from a non-South Asian novelist. While George and his family in New York may seem a tad clichéd, they work in the novel to create tension and help the story add up to a believable whole.
Those expecting an exotic story set in a foreign locale won't find it in The Newlyweds. But those looking for a beautiful narration of one woman's gradual coming of age (think Nazneen in Monica Ali's Brick Lane) will love Freudenberger's novel. Despite her foreignness and her circumstance, Amina is an everywoman - forging ahead in life, making the best choices she can while figuring out how to live with their consequences: some good, some bad, all hers to own.
This review was originally published in May 2012, and has been updated for the February 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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