The Newlyweds, Nell Freudenberger's second novel, is a charming and serious tale of marriage, family and identity. Its prose style is intimate, almost conspiratorial, as it moves from suburban America to the cities of south Asia, threading its arm around the reader confidently. The writing is clear and spare. Yet Freudenberger's investigation into what makes relationships work, and whether two people who once were once strangers can ever create a bond that can rival the deep attachments of parents and children, is complex and sophisticated.
Amina Mazid, a Bangladeshi teacher aged 24, is wooed via email by George Stillman, an engineer from Rochester, New York whom she meets online at AsianEuro.com. Intelligent and thoughtful, she has all her life loved everything "foreign"; nothing pleasing her more than Fanta, Cadbury's chocolate andWestern clothing. When a scholarship to a US university seems too expensive a proposition, she daydreams with her mother about marriage to an American as a way of satisfying her thirst for difference.
It is hard to understand exactly what the idea of America represents to Amina. She is an only child in a culture of big families. Her mother's fragile health is a constant concern. Her father, though a freedom-fighting hero as a young man, has no head for business and a series of failed ventures has meant constant financial insecurity.
America seems, I think, irreproachable to Amina: it is strong, solid, invulnerable and unarguable, like an oak tree crossed with God. It is safe in America; life is clear and clean. Amina and her mother pore over George's emails, analysing his every phrase, just as they used to examine her set texts from school.
George's disappointments with American women are many: their lack of modesty, their coarseness and their whims. It touches George that Amina does not put a picture of herself on the dating website, despite her obvious beauty. After 11 months of emailing, with one significant ten week break, George pays a visit to the family and on the ninth day he proposes. "I won't say I love you," he remarks, but he says it soon after Amina arrives in Rochester, when she mentions there is no need for a big white wedding dress. "That's why I love you… You're so much more sensible than American women." And so a marriage that is more "arranged" than the marriage of her parents takes place, and as with all marriages it is a beginning and not an ending.
Much of The Newlyweds concerns itself with Amina's adjustment to the new country, with has a grating informality as well as an alien stiffness for her. Her loneliness is evident in her gusto to win friends. There is also her projected anxiety about how her parents will cope when they join her in America.
George and Amina are brave and tell themselves they are lucky to have the hook of "cultural differences" to hang their disputes on, for what do other poor arguing couples use as an excuse? A cousin writes Amina unsettling emails reminding her of the gap between her home life and married life, as if to suggest the two can never be bridged.
Amina draws comparisons between her husband and father, in particular their anger styles. Her father's bouts of temper are brief like thunder. George's are characterised by his shoulders moving closer to his ears, and silence. This is perhaps the hardest "cultural difference" for Amina, for "how could you argue with someone who began to disappear as soon as you opened your mouth?" Is there enough common ground and depth to this unusual union for it to survive?
It is daring for an American novelist who lives in Brooklyn to write from the point of view of a Bangladeshi woman and to attempt such an interior view of family ties in Bangladesh. Yet Freudenberger approaches her subject with great sensitivity, a heavy sense of the seriousness of life - and much wry humour.
'The Small Hours' by Susie Boyt is due from Virago in November
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