American literature is rich with books that illuminate our culture from an immigrant's fresh perspective. The most powerful tend to be written by the newcomers themselves, or their offspring, but there are exceptions. Nell Freudenberger's latest novel, The Newlyweds, is about a young Bangladeshi woman determined to find a better life by marrying an American she meets on a dating website. Coming from a native New Yorker, it's an act of sustained, cross-cultural ventriloquism and empathy.
The Newlyweds is not exactly a love story. The arrangement forged across continents between practical Amina Mazid and stolid George Stillman, an electrical engineer from Rochester, N.Y., is an awkward marriage of hope, opportunity, pragmatism and accommodation. Freudenberger's focus, as in her heralded 2003 debut collection of stories, Lucky Girls, and her first novel, The Dissident, is the rub between American and Asian culture (in this case, South Asian). She sharply delineates the contrasts between overcrowded, hot and humid Dhaka and frigid, barren Rochester — and highlights how Amina's personality subtly shifts shape depending on where she is.
Hewing closely to Amina's clear-eyed, rational point of view, Freudenberger's narrative is heavy on exposition, spelling out the calculations that factor into Amina's every move. Yet it remains oddly captivating despite its emotionally muted key: Amina is a terrifically sympathetic character, and you want to know where Freudenberger is going with her story.
As the only child of a hapless father with an unfortunate talent for losing money and enraging vengeful, acid-throwing relatives, Amina had to leave school at age 12 due to lack of funds, but managed to pass her O-levels by studying on her own. Her ambition is to become a teacher — something unlikely to happen if she marries her strict Muslim suitor, a family friend. During months of long-distance email exchanges with George, she is all too aware that "she was not a little girl playing a game. She was a 24-year-old woman whose family's future depended on this decision."
George is something of an enigma — initially belligerently opinionated (he disdains American women for their silliness, perfume and knickknacks), yet surprisingly considerate (if boring) after Amina lands in icy Rochester. Freudenberger writes, "She and George didn't disagree very often, but when they did it was always because of 'cultural differences' — a phrase so useful in forestalling arguments that she felt sorry for those couples who couldn't employ it."
The cultural difference that most surprises Amina, whose plan is to move her parents into George's three-bedroom house once she gets her citizenship, is her realization that "Americans didn't like to live with anybody besides their spouses and their children." An even ruder shock is her discovery of an upsetting (if not entirely convincing) secret about George's recent past that makes her doubt his honesty.
Like Colm Toibin's Brooklyn — which also follows a poor young woman's hopeful but disorienting move to America (from Ireland) and jarring return to her homeland — The Newlyweds captures the pain of being pulled between two cultures. Amina and her needy parents are accused by relatives of "sleeping under a torn quilt and dreaming of gold." The situation, Freudenberger makes us realize in this sensitive tale, is actually more complex and distressing: Amina, fully at home in neither Bangladesh nor America, is trapped by the cultural expectations of both. She has made her bed and must sleep in it, however lumpy and uncomfortable it is.