Lucky Girls, by Nell Freudenberger

A joyful combination of sensualities
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The Independent Culture

Travelling is for people who don't know how to be happy, according to a character in Nell Freudenberger's debut short-story collection. Lucky Girls makes Asia the setting for Americans away from home. Their feelings about their lives are complicated by the strangeness of their surroundings.

Travelling is for people who don't know how to be happy, according to a character in Nell Freudenberger's debut short-story collection. Lucky Girls makes Asia the setting for Americans away from home. Their feelings about their lives are complicated by the strangeness of their surroundings.

In the title story, a woman, still in shock from the death of her married lover, hovers in emotional limbo, unable to decide whether to return to the United States or stay on in Delhi. She wonders, "Was it Arun, or India? Or was it that, for me, Arun was India?"

Others believe that the exotic will somehow save them. A depressive mother of two plans a journey from her home in New Delhi to Istanbul; 30 years later, the daughter is wondering why her mother left, taking only her sister on that epic drive. In another story - in the form of a letter written by a girl about the father she doesn't know - a young man gives up a scholarship to Oxford and enlists. Vietnam will provide the experiences he needs as a novelist. His subsequent reputation forever rests on an incident described in one of his books. But, among the clouds of insects and swaying elephant grass, did it really happen?

These Westerners inhabit that space between the old life and the one to come. Julia in "The Tutor" just wants "to get moving". Anxious to lose her virginity (she does so with her sensitive Indian tutor), the teenager is determined to win a place at Berkeley, to leave Bombay and the father she feels has let her down. In "The Orphan", Alice is divorcing and travels to Bangkok to break this news to her daughter and so bring her childhood to an end.

Lucky Girls is a joy to read. Western and Eastern sensuality combine, often chaotically. Girls stupefied by the heat seem defeated by unmade beds and towels dropped on the floor. Their desks spill gum- wrappers, tampons, lip-gloss and cigarettes. Outside, vegetation ripens and rots. Someone describes the night as "a dark so heavy that it was like a soft cloth in my mouth".

The repulsive and resplendent lie cheek by jowl. Things appear beautiful seen at the right moment but, in another light, turn ugly. The new becomes familiar and the familiar oddly new when characters glimpse "the unexpected view of something everyone in the world has seen a thousand times". Relationships are beautifully observed: the favouritism in families, the verbal fencing of the Indian matron with her son's Western lover, the parents indulging spoilt adult children.

Freudenberger is not showy, and makes her impact quietly. The daughter who has inherited her mother's depression feels as if she has lost a layer, that she is "getting even smaller, like a bar of soap". The five stories are full of such images. They seem to come easily to Freudenberger. Lucky girl, indeed.

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