I’ve been reading so much lately and it feels great. I think I took out The Newlyweds, which is a pretty hefty novel, in about three days. Thanks, NYC school bus strike and ensuing work cancellations for that extra time.
I would have been into this novel at any time, but reading it back-to-back with Beautiful Ruins made me appreciate Nell Freudenberger’s fiction crafting skills all the more. I was impressed by Jess Walter’s ability to pull together such an intricate network of stories and styles in his book, but my heart definitely lies with this kind of novel–intimate, linear and immersive. Even though The Newlyweds was told in the third person, the distance between reader and protagonist was so collapsed that I felt I was inside of the book. I knew Amina to the point where I felt nearly embodied within the story. There was a tiny few paragraphs in the last third of the book where the use of the second person dropped in, page 225-6, which further emphasized this closeness. Amina, returning to Bangladesh after three years away, was in a place she both knew and didn’t. The “you” created distance for her and closeness for the reader. I think it was used only three times–a minuscule yet expert narrative device.
If I understand correctly, Nell Freudenberger sat next to a woman on an airplane on whom Amina and her story are based. Amina, a young Bangladeshi woman, meets an American man online, eventually moves to Rochester to marry him, navigates struggles with his family, with finding and keeping jobs, with community college and most of all with her marriage, then returns to Bangladesh in order to bring her parents over to live with them in the States. Her return trip is eventful in ways that alter her story enough to rend her return to the US truly bittersweet. Although the finished novel departs from the real woman’s story, meeting her was fortuitous, it seems, not just for the inspiration but for the access it granted Ms. Freudenberger to Bangladesh (as well as to Rochester). From the acknowledgements, it looks like she actually went and spent time there with this woman’s family while researching the story; it seems like a book this convincing couldn’t have been done any other way. The details of place, family, custom and cultural complexity are so well-integrated into the fabric of the story, so un-exoticised, that it seems like they could only have been born from familiarity. They don’t get in the way of the real thrust of what is going on, the conflicts within in Amina’s family and within her own mind.
The writing is straightforward but lovely. It strikes a great balance between interiority and forward momentum. Amina’s processing of the world is explicit but natural, the best part of the book. I was lent this book by a friend and when I went to dog-ear a certain page (should I be dog-earing a book that doesn’t belong to me? No. But this sentence was so good!), it was already folded over! Both the book’s owner and I paused at the same place and sighed. In the passage, Amina considers how her personality is different in her native language and in English, how her proficiency and the contexts in which she uses each language reveal her in different ways. Then, she wonders, on page 125, “Was there a person who existed beneath languages?” Semiotics in context!
This was a long book, and objectively it ended at the right point, but I was disappointed when it was over. Especially because it was so damn sad; it makes sense, it does–it’s perfect–but I just wanted to keep reading. The book really doesn’t warrant a sequel because the way Ms. Freudenberger put it all together, the reader essentially knows what will happen. But–hello, Nell? If you write a sequel, I’ll read it!