Publication Date: May 1, 2012
Nell Freudenberger first showed up on my radar when she was listed as one of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" in 2010. A few months later, an exerpt from her upcoming novel called "An Arranged Marriage" was published in the magazine. I thought the piece was interesting and showed a lot of promise, so I made a mental note to check out her novel once it was published. That novel is The Newlyweds.
The premise is this: Amina and George meet on a website called AsianEuro.com and after a few months of email communication, they agree to meet and upon meeting, agree to marry. Amina moves to Rochester, New York from her home in Bengladesh with her new husband and begins to acclimate to her new life in America. But Geroge and Amina both have secrets from their past and as the novel progresses we start to question whether their marriage will survive.
The story is told from Amina's perspective and it is through her that we see George, America and Bangladesh. George comes across as a self-conscious loser, two-dimensional and rather unlikable. I had a problem with this for most of the story until I realized that since since we are getting all of our information from Amina, there is a layer of unknowableness to George that perhaps obscures him as a character. This is how Amina see's her husband - a kind of alien who has stolen her away to a new place that will never really feel like home.
America through Amina's eyes is equally foreign. Imagine going from the climate of Bangladesh to that of Rochester, New York? America to Amina is a frozen wasteland that's devoid of any real color and while she meets colorful people, Amina never truly connects to any of them.
In the last third of the novel, Amina travels back to Bangladesh to help her parents with their immigration to America. This is where the book really comes alive and the pages pop with colorful people and situations. While in Bangladesh, Amina must try to reconcile her past to her new life while dealing with her parents, who don't seem like they understand what's awaiting them in America.
The other thing that's waiting for her in Bangladesh is Nasir. As a young girl, Amina had been in love with Nasir and now that she's back in her home country, she realizes that her feelings never went away. Was her marriage to George a mistake? Has she made her path in life based on pure practicality and ignored her heart?
"What a strange thing, she thought, to find out one day that you had built your whole life on a mistake, and the next to discover that this fact would allow you to have your dearest wish."
There's a lot to like about The Newlyweds. Nell Freudenberger writes beautiful sentences that can expose the marrow of an idea without coming across as pretentious. She digs into the ideas of marriage, desire and cultural differences without getting preachy. Amina is an interesting character with compelling internal conflicts and her relationship with her parents is the part of the novel that I found the most compelling. I still feel that George comes across as a little too two-dimensional even though I think it was probably done on purpose.
In the end, The Newlyweds is pretty solid and given the praise above, I liked it more than I loved it. It's one of those books where I have respect for the craft involved and I like the story, but I just didn't fall for it all the way.
Book Source: Edelweiss Digital Review Copy