The Newlyweds, By Nell Freudenberger

To have and to hold back

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is something that I have noticed at two friends' recent weddings. Instead of the "together forever" sentiment so prevalent among dewy-eyed couples in their twenties, both borrowed the same sobering passage from the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran. "Let there be spaces in your togetherness," he says. "Love one another but make not a bond of love. And stand together, yet not too near together. For the pillars of the temple stand apart. And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow."

What Nell Freudenberger so convincingly shows in The Newlyweds is how such ambitions can translate into practice. Amina Mazid, a Bangladeshi Muslim in her twenties, leaves Dhaka to marry George Stillman, a mild-mannered electrical engineer whom she meets online. Both, it transpires, have their own agenda: for George, the deep-seated need to escape a superficial romantic fling and build a family of his own; for the more calculating Amina, a college diploma ("a tangible symbol of what she had achieved half way across the world") a green card and the prospect of bringing her ageing parents to America.

In chasing these dreams, George and Amina inhabit different mental spaces, and the author reveals the shades of loneliness and isolation that can colour an outwardly perfect union. "To her 'alone together' was something to strive for if you lived in a bustling house full of children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles. Here they were now, alone together, and with the TV on mute, the only sound was the indistinguishable electric purr of all their appliances working in conjunction."

Both are haunted by the past. And with the book narrated from Amina's point of view, there are some piercing cultural observations. "What she hadn't understood until George had explained it was that Americans didn't like to live with anybody beside their spouses and their children." Meanwhile, contrary to the shame inflicted on disgraced families in South Asia, US culture, she soon discovers, is different: "You might cheat, steal, lie, but if you confessed, you could be instantly forgiven – as if the bravery it took to admit it made the thing itself alright."

The chapters zip along with purpose and the novel flits effortlessly between the false intimacy of suburban America and the closely knit gossipy communities of Dhaka where Amina returns in the second half. If there are two flaws, they are that some of the characters are underdeveloped, while the homage to Starbucks, intended as a US reference point, reads more like a state-sponsored advertorial. But what this book does so well is articulate the challenges of mixed marriages in the digital age. The secret to success may be to allow both partners enough space to maintain their individuality. What The Newlyweds shows is the danger when those gulfs become simply too vast to transcend.