The Newlyweds: A Novel
- Nell Freudenberger
- 352 pp.
- May 3, 2012
Navigating her marriage to an American, a young Bangladeshi woman also navigates the exhilarating and disorienting duality of her immigrant experience.
Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
In her first novel The Dissident, Nell Freudenberger told the story of a Chinese artist living in Los Angeles on a teaching grant. She asked us to look at the differences between how people see themselves and how others perceive them, and to explore the shift in these perceptions as relationships grow. Her second novel The Newlyweds deals with many similar questions, this time from the perspective of Amina Mazid, a 24-year-old Bangladeshi woman who meets her American husband on an Internet dating site called AsianEuro.com.
George Stillman is an engineer living in Rochester, N.Y., and the novel opens as Amina feels her way into American culture in the early months of their marriage. Rochester feels like a foreign environment as ordinary American brands — Bed Bath & Beyond, Starbucks, George’s breakfast of Chex and banana, and his Tropicana orange juice — appear in a way that makes them exotic and strange. Long-distance phone calls to Mohammadpur punctuate Amina’s American life, and we learn about the parents who intend to immigrate once she obtains her U.S. citizenship. But Amina experiences a growing disorientation, and struggles with the sensation of having two identities.
“Amina knew she was a different person in Bangla than she was in English,” Freudenberger writes. “She noticed the change every time she switched languages on the phone. She was older in English, and also less fastidious; she was the parent to her parents. In Bangla, of course, they were still the parents, and she let them fuss over her, asking whether she was maintaining her weight and if she’d been able to find her Horlicks in America.”
As the novel progresses, secrets and betrayals develop alongside new intimacies. Amina becomes more comfortable with George and his family, with her part-time jobs and her ESL classes, while still maintaining contact with her cousin Nasir, once thought by her parents to be a suitable match. Nasir makes his appearance in emails and in flashback. He once lent her a book: The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam. She balks at his presumptiveness when he suggests a mosque in Rochester where she and George might have their Islamic wedding. But because, like her, he has lived overseas and is able to express perfectly the way she feels about herself, Amina is drawn to him,
She struggles for a connection between “the girl she so often imagined at home in her parent’s apartment and this American wife, using a dishwasher and the washing machine, checking her email on the living room computer.”
We gradually understand how different Amina’s expectations are from George’s. When she hints at plans for her parents’ immigration, he circumspectly wonders how they will adapt. George enjoys having the enormous house to themselves, while Amina would never have considered marrying abroad if it had meant a permanent separation from her parents.
Her American self sometimes feels like a person George invented. But it is the struggle to communicate “the person who existed beneath languages” that truly reveals the complexity of a cross-cultural, 21st-century relationship. “Sarcasm had been the hardest thing to get in English,” Amina reflects a couple of years into the marriage. “It had taken her at least a year to catch that tone in George’s voice that meant he was saying the opposite of what his words suggested. She hardly ever had to ask him to repeat himself now, and she no longer made the kind of mistake that had amused him in the past. Communication was supposed to be the secret to a successful marriage, but she sometimes thought things had been better between them when they’d understood each other less.”
In passages like this, Freudenberger’s straight-forward writing is so skillful that it appears to be effortless. She explores the misunderstandings, secrets and intimacies that build up over the early years of this marriage with a lightness of touch that belies the complex characterization. Later, when the setting moves to Bangladesh, the linguistic rhythms shift so delicately that you hardly notice, except that you can now hear within the dialog the lilting musicality of Deshi accents.
A list of American gifts Amina brings when she visits Bangladesh, hoping to facilitate her parents’ visas, is an example of the charm and humor that underpin the storytelling. “There was the Anais Anais eau de toilette that she’d brought from overstockperfume.com, along with six Dole pineapple juice boxes, two canisters of Wegmans protein powder, and a six box of Ziploc bags (just so that her mother could see what they were). For her father there was a digital wristwatch made by Sony and three bulk packages of 100 percent cotton Fruit of the Loom underwear and socks.”
The atmospherics of village life in Bangladesh also give the impression of authenticity. You can practically smell the anise and cardamom, hear the bustling street life of Dhaka and feel what it’s like to go up to a roof garden on a hot night. But while Freudenberger describes these things as though they are familiar, you sense how palpably different they seem to Amina after a few years in the States. “I dreamed about my parents in America,” she tells Nasir. “And then you come back,” he answers. “Sakina Apu makes palao the same way, but it doesn’t taste the same. And I go to the mosque alone and see the beggars. I see how the tap doesn’t work, the smell of all those bodies, everyone talking business, even during the prayers. It was easier to be strict over there. My sisters thought I should come home to find a girl, but even the women seem different to me now.”
So is there a self beneath language, in the end? Freudenberger suggests the answer is quite complicated. “You thought you were a permanent part of your own experience, the net that held it all together — until you discovered that there were many selves, dissolving into one another so quickly over time that the buildings and the trees and even the pavement turned out to have more substance than you did.”
The Newlyweds is the sort of novel you try to enjoy slowly because you don’t want to leave its atmosphere. When you finish, you’ll want to read everything else by this wonderful author.
Amanda Holmes Duffy has edited art listings for “Goings On About Town” at The New Yorker and compiled two books, The Jane Austen Sampler and The Henry James Sampler, published by Kensington. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The Christian Science Monitor, Rattapallax and most recently on the Ether Books app for download to iPhone. She blogs at www.irrelevanceofhope.blogspot.com.