By Rachel Paulose
AAP Guest Columnist
“The Newlyweds,” by Nell Freudenberger, is a joyless, occasionally preposterous, fictional depiction of a Bangladeshi woman’s marriage to an American man. Despite its evocative title, this novel depicts Yankee George Stillman and Bangladeshi Amina Mazid as haplessly matched roommates trapped in an uneasy coexistence.
The book starts out with an intriguing premise: George meets Amina through Asian.Euro.com, an Internet dating service to match Asians with Europeans and Americans. George is a thirty-four year old, nominally Christian, never married engineer. George possesses a master’s degree, his own house, and a good job in Rochester, New York. Amina is a twenty-four year old Muslim who dropped out of school at age thirteen. Amina is the only child of protective Bangladeshi parents who at times struggle just for food. Amina’s occasional work as a tutor gives her access to wealthy households with computers, which is how she finds the website through which she meets George.
From here, George and Amina’s tale degenerates into a Harlequin romance novel, minus the romance. After communicating via e-mail, George flies to Bangladesh to meet Amina and gives her his grandmother’s wedding ring nine days after he meets her. Amina wins a fiancée visa to the United States and successfully travels alone to Washington D.C., despite apparently never having previously traveled beyond the confines of her own humble village in Bangladesh.
George and Amina marry after two months in a civil ceremony attended by a handful of George’s family and friends. They are unable to conceive a child. Amina takes up odd jobs and George loses his.
George and Amina appear to have not a friend in the world, and their social life consists of occasional visits to George’s mother. What George does have, however, is a scandalous past, including an incestuous affair with a cousin, which resulted in a pregnancy the cousin terminated by abortion.
Said cousin, Kim, turned to George after being rejected by an Indian husband she met in India and also brought to the United States. Amina uncovers these secrets after Kim inserts herself into Amina’s life, purporting to befriend her.
Having resisted bringing Amina’s parents to live in their home in Rochester, George finally relents after Amina extracts the truth about his relationship with Kim. Amina travels to Bangladesh to retrieve her parents, who have been subject to various threats and extortion by their family.
George does not accompany Amina during this international trip either, as he is unwilling to spend the money for an additional ticket. Returning to her native land, Amina embraces a family friend as something more, but she is ultimately rejected. Amina’s father is attacked with acid just before their departure, but the trio manages to journey back to the United States.
Amina learns Kim has surreptitiously entered Amina in a $10,000 scholarship contest. Amina wins the grand scholarship on the strength of Kim’s ghostwritten five hundred word essay that culminates with this observation: “I believe that it is only by sharing our stories that we truly become one community.”
This novel suffers from gaping holes in plot and character development. Obvious questions are left unanswered.
Why does George, a successful American man, resort to a virtual mail-order bride from a radically different culture with whom he has nothing in common? Why do Amina’s traditional parents, without a trace of suspicion, allow her to leave with George, a virtual stranger who offers only a vague promise of a future marriage?
Why does Amina, a sheltered wallflower who still sleeps with her parents every night, abandon the teachings of her youth to live with George before he has married her? What impact does the loss of her family, friends, and religious community have on Amina’s psyche in a country that is still learning to understand Muslims in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks?
How does living in the West change Amina’s identity? How does marrying a disadvantaged Muslim Bangladeshi woman affect George’s values, priorities, and reservoir of compassion? Why does Amina stay with George after discovering he is still in love with Kim? Do George and Amina care for each other, at any level?
The book’s opening section is subtitled, “An Arranged Marriage.” Unfortunately, Freudenberger never explores what could make this theme intriguing.
In the East, arranged marriage has been practiced for millennia, with what many Asians and Middle Easterners would argue is great success. Low, nearly nonexistent divorce rates; strong, intergenerational families; and a premium on stability, if not romance, have characterized these unions. In the West, many are now adopting a modified version of arranged marriage by turning to the Internet for success in meeting marital prospects.
George and Amina’s marriage is a more extreme, hybrid version of Internet dating and arranged marriage, but their partnership bears none of the hallmarks of a traditional arranged marriage: shared community, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, personal values, and commitment to commitment. What then, is George and Amina’s reason for commitment, when love itself is lacking? This question, too, goes unanswered.
The book attempts to portray many sensational topics, any one of which would be dramatic on its own: infidelity, incest, abortion, infertility, violent crime, interethnic marriage, post 9-11 challenges for Muslims in America, and transcontinental immigration. The combination of all these challenges, packaged through one-dimensional, inexplicable characters, is simply not conveyed in a credible manner. Indeed, the only point at which any character reveals any self reflection is a cringe inducing comparison Amina makes between herself and a lead character in “The Last of the Mohicans.”
While I agree that sharing our stories enables us to bond as a community, those stories must be shared in a way that is authentic to be truly meaningful. The immigrant experience is poignant, and the American immigrant experience is unique. Many authors, including Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Chaim Potok, have captured this experience in ways that are both heartrending and inspiring, without being trite. Nor are authors who have not personally experienced the world of the “other” precluded from telling their stories. Indeed, great writers from Shakespeare to Hemingway have been recreating worlds and characters personally unfamiliar to them in compelling fashion for centuries.
Years ago, when my sister introduced me to the genre of immigrant fiction, I remember thrilling to discover engaged authors writing about the American immigrant’s parallel worlds with genuine insight. The power of that shared experience, captured in words, moved me to tears.
On this score, “The Newlyweds” fails. I took considerable time, indeed some months, to decide whether or not to even write a critical review. Ultimately, I decided to finish this review with the hope that as the world and this nation become increasingly interdependent and diverse, we strive for greater sensitivity and a desire for true understanding in telling each other’s stories.