Life as a mail-order bride isn't all it's cracked up to be in Nell Freudenberger's excellent second novel The Newlyweds.
Freudenberger famously came to attention at 26 when she had her first short story published in The New Yorker. But she's proven herself worth the hype. “The Newlyweds” is a shrewdly empathetic examination of culture clash that reminds a reader of Monica Ali's “Brick Lane” or Leila Aboulela's “The Translator.”
Amina Mazid of Bangladesh met George Stillman of upstate New York on AsianEuro.com. It wasn't exactly love at first sight. (In fact, Amina had a crush on Nasir, the son of one of her father's freedom fighter buddies.) But her parents were getting older and her father's business failures were getting more costly, and Amina, an only child, knows she's their only hope of security. Her marriage, she realizes, has much more in common with her grandparents' arranged union than her parents, who were so in love that they ran away together over their families' objections.
Once in New York, Amina learns to adjust – not just to the weather and the food, but to the people who assume she must be a babysitter because of her brown skin, and to dead-end jobs at a retail store and a Starbucks, where it doesn't seem like she'll ever be able to save enough money to bring her parents over. Most of all, she has to adjust to life with George, who had promised to convert to Islam but is now in no hurry, and who appears leery of the idea of in-laws he only met once moving in with him. His cousin Kim is the only Stillman eager to befriend Amina, but George seems wary of their friendship.
Whenever Amina talks to her parents, “she had the disorienting feeling that her past was still happening, unfolding in a parallel stream right alongside her present. Only on the telephone did the streams ever cross.” (As we know from “Ghostbusters,” that can be a very dangerous thing.)
In the last third of the novel, Amina returns to Bangladesh and faces Nasir and the choices she's made. But her return isn't the longed-for homecoming; after her years in America, she doesn't quite fit in either country. "You thought that you were the permanent part of your own experience, the net that held it all together – until you discovered that there were many selves, dissolving into one another so quickly over time that the buildings and trees and even the pavement turned out to have more substance than you did."