The Washington Post
My New American Lifeby Francine Prose
Lula, a twenty-six-year-old Albanian woman living surreptitiously in New York City on an expiring tourist visa, hopes to make a better life for herself in America. When she lands a job as caretaker to Zeke, a rebellious high school senior in suburban New Jersey, it seems that the security, comfort, and happiness of the American dream may finally be within reach.… See more details below
Lula, a twenty-six-year-old Albanian woman living surreptitiously in New York City on an expiring tourist visa, hopes to make a better life for herself in America. When she lands a job as caretaker to Zeke, a rebellious high school senior in suburban New Jersey, it seems that the security, comfort, and happiness of the American dream may finally be within reach. Her new boss, Mister Stanley, an idealistic college professor turned Wall Street executive, assumes that Lula is a destitute refugee of the Balkan wars. He enlists his childhood friend Don Settebello, a hotshot lawyer who prides himself on defending political underdogs, to straighten out Lula's legal situation. In true American fashion, everyone gets what he wants and feels good about it.
But things take a more sinister turn when Lula's Albanian "brothers" show up in a brand-new black Lexus SUV. Hoodie, Leather Jacket, and the Cute One remind her that all Albanians are family, but what they ask of her is no small favor. Lula's new American life suddenly becomes more complicated as she struggles to find her footing as a stranger in a strange new land. Is it possible that her new American life is not so different from her old Albanian one?
Set in the aftermath of 9/11, My New American Life offers a vivid, darkly humorous, bitingly real portrait of a particular moment in history, when a nation's dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies, and fear. Beneath its high comic surface, the novel is a more serious consideration of immigration, of what it was like to live through the Bush-Cheney years, and of what it means to be an American.
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My New American LifeA Novel
By Francine Prose
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2011 Francine Prose
All right reserved.
The day after Lula's lawyer called to tell her she was legal,
three Albanian guys showed up in a brand-new black Lexus SUV.
She had been staring out her window at the drizzly afternoon and
thinking that the mulberry tree on Mister Stanley's front lawn
had waited to drop its last few leaves until it knew she was watch-
ing. Obviously, this was paranoid and also egocentric, but in the
journal that her immigration lawyer and her boss had suggested
that she keep, she wrote: "October, 2005. Does a leaf fall in New
Jersey if no one is there to see?"
Don Settebello and Mister Stanley would go nuts for a line like
that. They were always telling Lula she should write a memoir
about her old Albanian life and now her new one in the United
States. Don even had a title, My New American Life. Lula had a
better title, Stranger in a Strange Land, but she'd already seen it
in the public library. Maybe she could still use it. Maybe no one
Raindrops beaded the SUV as it trawled past the house where
Lula lived and worked, taking care of Mister Stanley's son Zeke,
a high school senior who only needed minimal caretaking. In fact
Zeke could do many things that Lula couldn't, such as drive a
car. But since Mister Stanley believed that teenagers shouldn't be
left on their own, and since he went off to Wall Street at dawn
and didn't return until late, he had hired Lula to make sure that
Zeke ate and slept and did his homework. Mister Stanley was
very safety-conscious, which Lula found very admirable but
also dangerously American. No Albanian father would do that
to his son and risk turning him gay.
Lula's duties included making sure there was food in the
house. Most afternoons, Zeke drove Lula to the supermar-
ket in his vintage 1970 Oldsmobile. Considering how little
they bought and how much of it was frozen, they could have
shopped once a month, but they enjoyed the ritual. On the way,
Zeke gave Lula driving tips: who went first at an intersection,
how to speak the silent language that kept drivers from killing
each other like they did constantly in Tirana. Zeke might have
been explaining the principles of astrophysics, but Lula appre-
ciated the gesture, just as Zeke liked feeling superior to Lula and
better about having a nanny only nine years older than he was.
The word nanny was never mentioned. Lula explained to Zeke
that in her native country only party bigwigs were allowed to
own the black deathmobiles that sped through Tirana in packs,
and then the economy tanked and no one could afford a car,
so now Albanians drove their hot or secondhand Mercedes like
kids who'd had their licenses for about five minutes.
As had Zeke, who still wasn't legal to drive at night. But he'd
grown up in a car culture, driving was his birthright. Every
country had problems, but when Lula saw how Americans
drove, how American children drove, she couldn't help feeling
cheated for not having been born here. Her dad used to borrow
her uncle's car, and then he sort of stole it and smuggled it over
the border from Albania into Kosovo, where both her parents
were killed in a car wreck. Lula had never mentioned this sad
fact to Mister Stanley or Zeke. It would only have upset Mister
Stanley and made Zeke suspect that his driving lessons might
not be enough to put Lula on the road.
Mister Stanley said Zeke could have the gas-guzzling-pig
Olds if he hardly ever drove it. If he had to drive at all, his
dad preferred him in a tank. Zeke was so in love with the Olds
that he kept it in the garage and rode the bus back and forth
to school, and Mister Stanley parked his seven-year-old Acura
minivan at the end of the driveway. Officially, Zeke was only
allowed to drive to The Good Earth Market, which his father
liked, because it was close and had organic choices, and which
Zeke also liked (it was practically the only thing he and his
father agreed on) because he believed in staying small and
locally owned and off the corporate grid, though his actual food
tastes ran to mesquite-flavored corn chips and microwavable
ramen. Zeke didn't notice the other shoppers looking down
their rich straight suburban noses at what he and Lula bought.
Probably theirs was the only household in which the Albanian
girl let the American teen decide. Lula had cooked vegetables,
many times, but Zeke refused to eat them. Let his wife worry
After she and Zeke got back from the market, Lula mixed
them each a mojito, a splash of alcohol in Zeke's, a healthy
splash in her own, heavy on the sugar and mint. Zeke sat on a
kitchen stool and watched Lula make dinner. Most nights they
ate pizza with frozen crust, tomato sauce from a jar, and moz-
zarella that, refrigerated, would outlive them both. Sometimes
Lula unpeeled tiny ice-dusted hamburgers, which, steamed in
the microwave, were surprisingly delicious, surprisingly like a
street snack you could buy in Tirana. Bad food made Zeke feel
rebellious, which every teenager needed. The better Zeke felt
about himself, the more secure Lula's job was, and the likelier
her chances of staying in this country, though Mister Stanley
and Don Settebello had made it clear that their helping Lula
was not about her working for Mister Stanley and being good
And now, hooray, she was legal! Lula inhaled and shuddered,
half at the shiny black Lexus still patrolling the block, the other
half at her daily life. The life of an elderly person!
Last night, like every weeknight, Lula and Zeke had eaten
dinner in front of the TV. Lula made them watch the evening
news, educational for them both. The president had come on
the air to warn the American people about the threat of bird
flu. The word avian was hard for him. His forehead stitched
each time he said it, and his eyelids fluttered, as if he'd been
instructed to think of birds as a memory prompt.
"At home," Lula marveled, "that man is a god."
"You say that every night," Zeke said.
"I'm reminding myself," she'd said. Her country's love affair
with America had begun with Woodrow Wilson, and Clinton
and Bush had sealed the deal by bombing the Serbs and rescu-
ing the Kosovar Albanians from Milosevic's death squads. Even
at home she'd had her doubts about the streets paved with gold,
but when she finally got to New York and started working at La
Changita, the waitstaff had quickly straightened her out about
the so-called land of opportunity. And yet for all the mixed feel-
ings shared by waiters and busboys alike, the strongest emotion
everyone felt was the desire to stay here. Well, fine. In Lula's
opinion, ambivalence was a sign of maturity.
Yesterday night, as always, she'd felt sorry for the president,
so like a dim little boy who'd told a lie that had set off a war, and
then he'd let all those innocent people die in New Orleans, and
now he was anxiously waiting to see what worse trouble he was
about to get into. He seemed especially scared of the vice presi-
dent, who scared Lula, too, with his cold little eyes not blinking
when he lied, like an Eastern Bloc dictator minus the poufy hair.
"There is no bird flu," Lula had told Zeke. "A war in Iraq,
Hurricane Katrina, sure. Maybe one chicken in China with a
sore throat and a fever."
But by then the city police chief had appeared on the screen
to announce that the alert level had been raised to code orange
because of a credible terrorist threat against the New York sub-
Lula said, "There is no threat."
"How do you know everything?" Zeke asked. "Not that I
don't agree it's all bullshit."
She'd been about to tell Zekeagain!about having
grown up in the most extreme and crazy Communist society in
Europe, ruled for decades by the psycho dictator Enver Hoxha,
who died when Lula was a child, but not without leaving his
mark. The nation was a monument to him, as were the seventy
thousand mushroomlike concrete bunkers he'd had built in a
country smaller than New Jersey. But before she even had a
chance to repeat herself, she'd been distracted by an advertise-
ment for the new season of ER.
"Look, Zeke," she'd said, "see that gurney rushing in and
doors flying open and all the nurses throwing themselves on the
patient? Other countries, no one rushes. No one even looks at
you till you figure out who to pay off."
As a reward for sitting through the news, Zeke got to watch
his favorite channel, which showed grainy reruns of a cheap
black-and-white 1970s series about a small-town mom and
daughter both in love with the same cop who grew fangs and
bit girls' necks. Zeke was obsessed with vampires and with the
1970s. He predicted that vampires were going to be huge.
"One problem with vampires," Lula told Zeke, "in my part
of the world, harmless people are always being burned at the
stake because their neighbors think they are blood-sucking
bats." She hated lying to Zeke. But vampire lynchings had hap-
pened. She'd just changed one little phrase, always instead of
used to, and put it in the present tense. She never, or hardly ever,
used to lie at home, where for decades mass lying had been a
way of life, where you agreed that day was night if you thought
it might help keep your children safe. She'd almost never lied
at all until she'd applied for her U.S. tourist visa. But ever since
she got here, she couldn't seem to stop.
Zeke said, "Why would people do evil shit like that?"
"Because they wanted their neighbor's house or husband or wife?"
Zeke said, "That doesn't happen here. Vampires are a meta-phor."
"A metaphor for what?" Lula asked.
"For everything," Zeke replied.
After dinner, Lula plastic-wrapped the leftover pizza in case
Mister Stanley came home hungry, which he never did. She'd
worked for Mister Stanley for almost a year and still had no idea
what he did for food and sex. Maybe he was a vampire. Mister
Stanley's milky skin was so translucent that, until she tired of it,
Lula liked standing where she could see him backlit so that his
bat ears glowed like a pair of night lamps.
Now as she watched the brand-new SUV prowl the suburban
street, she was sure, or almost sure, it had nothing to do with
her. For one thing, she didn't know anyone in this snooty town,
and no one knew her. Mama dead, Papa dead, may their souls
rest in peace, not that she believed in the soul. She hoped they
were in a heaven (which she also didn't believe in) that was as
little as possible like Albania. But would they have wanted that?
When her dad drank, which was constantly, he said he would
die for his homeland, and in his own way, he had.
Lula still had a few aunts, uncles, and cousins sprinkled
around Albania and Kosovo, but they'd lost touch. An Alba-
nian without a family was a walking contradiction. Of course
she hadn't said this to the embassy officer in Tirana who'd
approved her tourist visa. She'd brought in pictures of neigh-
bor kids, whom she'd claimed were nephews and nieces she
could hardly bear to leave for that last-fling vacation before
she came home and married her childhood sweetheart. She said
"Christmas wedding" a dozen times so the guy wouldn't sus-
pect she was half Muslim. Dad's mom, her granny, was Chris-
tian. Wasn't that enough? Anyway, Muslim meant nothing in
Communist post-Communist Albania. An American wouldn't
know that. Muslim meant Muslim to him.
She'd said, "I want to see the world, starting with Detroit,
where my aunt lives." The officer smiled. How cute! His heart
flopped for the Albanian girl so innocent she thought Detroit
was the world. One look at Detroit, she'd jump on the first plane
home and shrivel into a raisin before she was thirty-five. Lula
crossed and uncrossed her legs. On the visa officer's wall was a
poster of the Statue of Liberty. Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses. Lula had to convince him that she wasn't
planning to stay. Everyone lied to the embassy. It didn't count as
a lie. Since 9/11 they made you lie, but that hadn't stopped one
Albanian girl or boy from wanting to come to New York.
The Lexus turned and passed the house.
Mister Stanley had given Lula a cell phone that he liked her to
keep charged, though she never called anyone, and no one had
called her, not since her best friend Dunia had left the country
and gone home. Mister Stanley had programmed in their home
phone number, Mister Stanley's cell and work phones, Zeke's
cell phone, and Don Settebello's office. She was the only person
on earth with five numbers on her phone!
She was like the girl in the fairy tale. The princess in the
tower. One of the made-up "traditional" folk stories she'd
written for Mister Stanley and Don Settebello was about a
beautiful maiden imprisoned in a castle. A prince sees her at
the window, falls in love, and, unable to reach her, transplants
a strong, quick-growing vine from his native region. The good
news is, he climbs the vine and rescues her; the bad news is that
the vine grows and grows and wipes out the local farmers, their
punishment for locking up the princess in the first place. Don
especially liked that one, which, he said, proved that indige-
nous folk cultures foresaw the threat of species importation and
Next fall, Zeke would leave for college, and Lula would
have to figure out the next phase of her new American life.
Excerpted from My New American Life by Francine Prose Copyright © 2011 by Francine Prose. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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My New American Life is whip-smart funny. Satire is not always easy to pull off on the written page , and Prose does it amazingly well. Her writing, especially of Lula's thoughts, had me cracking up, like this one: "Lula knew that some Americans cheered every time INS agents raided factories and shoved dark little chicken-packagers into the backs of trucks. She'd seen the guys on Fox News calling for every immigrant except German supermodels and Japanese baseball players to be deported, no questions asked." Lula wants desperately to grab a hold of the American dream, but her job as a nanny to an 17-year-old young man leaves her bored and stuck in the suburbs with no friends and nothing to do. Prose makes you feel her stifling suffocation. When the wanna-be Sopranos Albanians show up and ask her to "hold on to" a gun for them, Lula does as she's asked, even though she knows this could lead to trouble for her and her employer and her deportation. Yet, strangely, she cannot say no to them; and besides, it's a little excitement. I usually identify with at least one of the characters in a novel that I read, but I could not identify with anyone in this book, yet that did not stop me from enjoying it. I live in New York City, a city that runs because of its immigrant population, and this book gave me a new perspective on the people who leave their families behind to start a new life elsewhere. Lula misses her homeland; she cries "for her once-beautiful homeland now in the hands of toxic dumpers and sex traffickers and money launderers. She cried for missing her country, for not missing it, for having nothing to miss. She cried for the loneliness and uncertainty of her life among strangers who could still change her mind and make her go home." All of the characters are interesting: sad sacks Mister Stanley and his friend Don (both divorced and lost), young Zeke (I just wanted to hug him and tell him it will be all right), the Albanians (a riot!) and Lula's friend Dunia, who hits the immigrant lottery by finding a rich man to marry. There are so many fantastic scenes- at the restaurant where Lula gets a celebratory citizenship dinner with Zeke, his dad, Don and his caustic daughter, Lula's date with Alvo, the college trip- all are sharp and memorable. Prose successfully combines the comic and the tragic, and throws in some politics, like Don's work with detainees at Guantanemo. Her portrait of American life soon after 9/11 (through Lula's eyes) is vivid and thought-provoking.
Surprise! Surprise! Francine Prose isn't a literary snobwriter after all. Who woulda thunk? "My New American Life" is breezy, funny, thoughtful -- a good summer time read. I swore I'd never tackle Prose again after "Blue Angel." "My New American Life" reads like a morality "play" on middle-class American values as seen through the eyes of a pert and educated twenty-six year old Albanian nanny. It's "funny" (like Andy Kaufman and Carol Kane were on the sitcom"Taxi). The book reads like a first novel which, given Ms. Prose accomplishments, is quite an accomplishment and refreshing. I think of Einstein suggesting, "Simple but no simplier." Cheers to Ms. Prose. I felt like I was in the hands of a master when reading her book.
In the final scene our heroine, who cannot drive, is stuck in traffic in an almost certainly stolen SUV, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, leaving behind a home where she cannot stay, but where they aren't ready for her to leave, towards an apartment where she'll be able to stay - at most - a few months. Lula is an Albanian emigre during the presidency of Bush the Younger post 911, precisely at the time when America was at its most xenophobic. After working illegally as a waitress she lands work as a part time nanny to the teenage son of an investment banker abandonned by his mentally ill wife. Things seem to be going well - or as well as Lula could hope - when three of her countrymen show up and ask her to hold onto a gun for them. An immigrant perspective on the United States provides an ideal satiric vantage point, as writers have long known. Prose supplies a nice additional touch by making Lula herself a story teller. At the behest of her employer and the lawyer who's working to secure her a greencard - two liberals of the sort naively eager to hear tales of hardship - Lula writes "true stories" of Albania, fabricated patchworks of history and fairytale. It's the sort of thing that happens everyday to people of all ethnicities asked to "perform" their identities. Lula spins out improbable accounts in writing as well as conversation, withholding the real but equally improbable truth. The novel is funny, charming, and well-written, and Prose keeps us dangling at the edges of things that don't quite happen: affairs that don't quite come off, dysfunctional families that manage to stay on just this side of functionality, guns the fire, but not fatally. And truth to tell, the experience is at times frustrating for the reader - I found myself longing for something more, something richer, something greater at stake, but then at the end - unaccountably, to me - the novel comes together in an entirely fulfilling way. In the last scene of Lula driving across a bridge, I realized that Prose's formless story catches the essence a New American Life, of American Life, and maybe Life in General: hopping from stone to stone, always unfinished, always provisional, making it up as we go along.
Francine Prose has been a writer of many incredible stories from fiction to nonfiction, to Young Adult novels. With this newest project, this fantastic author offers a dark comic novel that covers everything from immigration to all facets of American culture. The lead character is Lula, a twenty-six-year-old Albanian woman who lies in order to obtain her visa to come to New York City, leaving behind her birthplace - Post-Communist Albania. Lula is fortunate enough to become a caretaker for a teenage boy, which allows her to relocate to a New Jersey suburb. Moving in with Mister Stanley - a college professor who has turned into an investment banker - and his child, Zeke, Lula takes on the role of helper and watcher to the young man. Mister Stanley works with his friend - a hotshot lawyer named Don Settebello - as they try to help Lula with her legal status and win her a work permit so that she can stay in America. Lula, although bored a bit with her job of full-time caretaker, finds herself face-to-face with her own countrymen, as they pull up outside her door in a brand new Lexus SUV. They identify themselves as friends of Lula's cousin and ask that she take care of a handgun for them. Which she does - not only to back up her Albanian "friends" but also because she finds herself unbelievably attracted to Alvo - an Albanian who leads this band of men. As Lula begins to find herself being stalked - and hoping immensely that her stalker is Alvo - Lula tries her best to soak up as much American knowledge as she can. This novel not only addresses the subjects of immigration and the politics that came from the first post 9/11 years, but also offers an in-depth look into the passion of Lula, a person who wishes to live a life that involves humor, a bit of danger, and a way to grab on to her American dream. This story shows how a person wishes desperately to become an American and goes through the struggle of becoming a stranger in a strange world. Not only does this author do a wonderful job of explaining life with just the right amount of humor and drama combined, but she also offers a true study of post 9/11 America. Quill Says: Although a little slow in places, many readers will find this an interesting book and a wonderful overview of achieving the 'American dream.'
Nobody is spared satire's jarring wink in "My New American Life", necessitating a literary group hug of all the characters by the book's final pages. Just about everything here put a knowing smile on my face, yet there were so many surprises by the end. Lula, our twenty-something protagonist, is both smart enough to bring much of her Albanian survival skills to the U.S., while too naive to look objectively at the American legal system and her bland yet benevolent employer. It leads to a huge amount of humor and a more compassionate look at everyone in this tiny social stratosphere. I may have wanted less social commentary, more logic and more action, but then again I might be too slow of a reader. "My New American Life" does what the best novels do - provide us a fun ride, with our eyes wide open at the end.