Reading Group No. 1: ‘The Newlyweds’ by Nell Freudenberger

newleyweds

Blurb (from the back of the book)

‘Amina met George online. Within months she has left her home in Bangladesh and is living in George’s house in the American suburbs. Theirs is a very twenty-first-century union, forged from afar yet echoing the traditions of the arranged marriage.

But as Amina struggles to find her place in America, it becomes clear that neither she nor George have been entirely honest with each other. Both have brought to the marriage a secret – a vital, hidden part of themselves – which will reveal who they are and whether their future is together or an ocean apart’.

My Thoughts

At the second hand bookshop I volunteer in, The Newlyweds was the first book we decided to pick for our brand new, monthly reading group. I had never heard of Nell Freudenberger before and immediately went to the nearest bookshop to purchase a copy. From the hype on the cover my expectations were pretty high:

‘Every minute I was away from this book I was longing to be back in the world she created’ – Ann Patchett.

‘A marvellous book’ – Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss.

As an author feted to be one of the twenty best new novelists under the age of forty by The New Yorker magazine I expected a lot more from this novel – not that I didn’t think it was well written. Freudenberger is able to bring to life the Deshi landscape of Amina’s hometown so vividly that, at times, it’s easy to forget that she isn’t, herself, from Bangladesh. She makes a lot more effort to form an in-depth character study of Amina that it’s a shame almost all the other characters are one-dimensional and under-developed.

The novel begins with the email correspondence between Amina and George, who have met through the aptly named website, Asianeuro.com. Amina (encouraged by her mother who wants a good match for her daughter) is more interested in George’s status as an American. George, it can only be inferred, is an average thirty-something year old who just wants to settle down and start a family. They eventually meet when George visits Amina and her family in Bangladesh to propose. The novel then coasts along, beautifully written, to the point where you have gotten halfway through and realised that not much has actually happened.

The climax of the plot occurs when Amina finds out the secret behind George’s sudden silence via email, which happened in the early stages of their internet ‘courting’. George’s adopted cousin, Kim, who is perhaps the second most developed character in the novel, was pregnant with his baby. He was willing to settle down with Kim, who he is unrequitedly in love with, but she decides to have an abortion without his approval. Amina feels tricked and betrayed by this and pretty much blackmails George into letting her parents come over to live with them.

This climax marks the point where Amina suddenly stops being the obedient, opinion-less housewife that George would like her to be. Instead she becomes more vocal about what she wants. However, this change is sudden – we do not see a progression from Amina, which makes it difficult to relate to her. In fact, I felt increasingly frustrated whilst reading this novel as I could not connect to any of the characters. I’m unsure whether this is deliberate from Freudenberger, to highlight the ‘cultural differences’ that are so central to the plot of The Newlyweds, or if this is a fault in her writing. Is the disconnect we experience as a reader a way to highlight Amina’s own disconnect? Not only has the image of America turned out to be vastly different from the one she has dreamed of since childhood, but she can no longer re-imagine herself back in Bangladesh. Freudenberger, it has to be said, cleverly depicts this ‘limbo-like’ position of the loneliness of being an immigrant in America to the point where I can almost feel sorry for Amina – but not quite.

Despite Amina’s increasing assertiveness towards the end of the novel it is a shame that Freudenberger doesn’t take this further. When Amina returns to Bangladesh on her own to sort out her parents visa’s she is definitely a stronger and more decisive character than the one she was when she first arrived in America. However, she still lacks the courage to pursue her own desires, her own heart – and I am not saying that a better ending would have been to leave George for her childhood crush, Nasir. I admire the fact that Freudenberger didn’t turn her novel into a cliche Hollywood movie where the female protagonist is torn between two men, but I am disappointed that those were the only options open to Amina, an intelligent twenty-first-century woman.

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