The Newlyweds, Nell Freudenberger, Alfred A Knopf, Pp 337, $ 15.95
THIS new novel, the third by Nell Freudenberger, has George, a 34-year old American engineer and Amina, a 24-year old Bangladeshi, getting to meet through the internet site called AsianEuro.com, tells the story through Amina’s eyes. The story of the alliance between the two seems like an updated version of the village matchmaker who had arranged her grandparents’ marriage. George wants a stable home life and a family; Amina is keen on the chance to get American education and a career. They form a mutually beneficial alliance.
The first few years in the marriage for Amina are spent in attempting to balance her new life in America with the competing claims of her religion, her family and her history in Bangladesh. Since they come from diametrically opposite cultures, they encounter many hurdles, though the most profound is she has not only ever had an orgasm, she doesn’t even know that it’s possible. Their biggest apple of discord is their notion of a family. While George’s vision is to have a nuclear family; Amina’s is to nurture an extended family. Amina wants her parents with her and it has never occurred to her that an economically feckless father and a dotty mother would not be accompanying her to Rochester, New York to see and experience the land of malls, home depots and snow. Live-in in-laws are not what George has in mind. He is a bit of a pedant.
Moreover George wants Amina to be a partner who’s not so much subservient but comprehensible. “Who knows why women do anything they do? Except for you…you’re logical.” Anyway he treats her with consideration and respect, even if he is unable to fathom what’s going on in her mind. Amina regards marriage as an arrangement, a series of challenges on the road to adulthood. Their union is not passionate but it is companionable. Yet as she adjusts to her new identity as an American wife, “using the dishwasher and the washing machine, checking her e-mail on the living room computer,” she begins to fret over the loss of her precious self, wondering if the past and present Amina “would simply grow farther and farther apart, until the day they didn’t even recognise each other. What she once thought of as an immnutable soul, “whose thoughts were in no particular dialect”, is now being reshaped by her environment, her husband and the English language.
But despite all her pragmatism, Amina remains stubbornly illogical about her parents. “She was here and so this was where they had to be,” she insists in the face of George’s reservations. She finally manages to parlay a transgression on his part into an agreement to bring them over and the last part of the novel describes her journey back to Bangladesh to secure her visas and get them on a plane. It’s a nightmare of bickering, competitive relatives, obstructive bureaucrats and unruly emotions for her. It is here that she discovers what she really wants – a desire she’s only able to recognise due the time she’s spent in the land of spirited individualism.
What the author says is that Amina had believed that “she’d been born with a soul whose thoughts were in no particular dialect and she had imagined that when she married, her husband would be able to recognise this deep part of herself,” but then who gets the complete world.
(Alfred A. Knopf, Random House Inc.,1745, Broadway, New York)