The Newlyweds

The Newlyweds

4.3 23
by Nell Freudenberger
     
 

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Amina Mazid is twenty-four when she moves from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York, for love. A hundred years ago, Amina would have been called a mail-order bride. But this is the twenty-first century: she is wooed by—and woos—George Stillman online.
 
For Amina, George offers a chance for a new life for her and her parents, as well as a

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Overview

Amina Mazid is twenty-four when she moves from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York, for love. A hundred years ago, Amina would have been called a mail-order bride. But this is the twenty-first century: she is wooed by—and woos—George Stillman online.
 
For Amina, George offers a chance for a new life for her and her parents, as well as a different kind of happiness than she might find back home. For George, Amina is a woman who doesn't play games. But each of them is hiding something: someone from the past they thought they could leave behind. It is only when Amina returns to Bangladesh that she and George find out if their secrets will tear them apart, or if they can build a future together.

Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
The Newlyweds…gradually opens out into a genuinely moving story about a woman trying to negotiate two cultures, balancing her parents' expectations with her own aspirations, her ambition and cynical practicality with deeper, more romantic yearnings…The Amina-Nasir relationship and Amina's relationship with her aging parents are the nucleus of this novel and reveal the contradictions deep within Amina's own heart. Unlike her synthetic partnership with George, these are real, complex, deeply felt connections that have both endured and changed over time, and in depicting them Ms. Freudenberger demonstrates her assurance as a novelist and her knowledge of the complicated arithmetic of familial love and the mathematics of romantic passion.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
…a delight, one of the easiest book recommendations of the year…The cross-cultural tensions and romance so well drawn here recall the pleasures of Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand…[Freudenberger]'s that rare artist who speaks fluently from many different cultural perspectives, without preciousness or undue caution…[She] knows Amina as well as Jane Austen knows Emma, and despite its globe-spanning set changes, The Newlyweds offers a reading experience redolent of Janeite charms: gentle touches of social satire, subtly drawn characters and dialogue that expresses far more than its polite surface.
—The Washington Post
Mohsin Hamid
…truths are indeed present in this novel—in its cleareyed openness and compassion toward the world, in its nuanced and human representation of Muslim characters and their varying Islams, and in the under­standing and sympathy it displays for the nostalgia of migrants, which is to say for all human beings, even those who are born and die in the same town and travel only in time.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Freudenberger’s delicately observed second novel is another account of cross-cultural confusion in the tale of a Bangladeshi woman, 24-year-old Amina Mazid, who becomes the e-mail–order bride of 34-year-old George Stillman, an electrical engineer in Rochester, N.Y. Arriving in snowy Rochester in 2005 is a culture shock for Amina, but within three years she has her green card, is married to George, and is taking college courses when not pulling espresso at Starbucks. Her marriage, though, has its problems. Sex is awkward, George loses his job, and Amina discovers something that makes her doubt his sincerity. She eventually returns to Bangladesh to bring her parents to the U.S., but a problem with her father’s visa keeps Amina there and forces her back into the morass of her extended family’s resentments and petty jealousies, all of which she’d hoped to escape in marriage. Add to her troubles an old suitor, Nasir, waiting not so patiently in the wings. Freudenberger (The Dissident) does an excellent job of portraying the plight of a young Muslim woman not totally comfortable in either of the worlds she inhabits. But Amina’s passivity may frustrate many readers, and George is a complete cipher. In the end, Freudenberg’s anatomy of a modern arranged marriage is somewhat too dependent on cultural clichés to entirely satisfy. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM. (May)
From the Publisher
“The beauty of The Newlyweds rests in its apparent simplicity. In clear, unfussy prose, this is the story of a marriage between two people who believe they can carve their own fate. Amina, a thoughtful Muslim woman, had always dreamed of escaping the deprivations of her life in Bangladesh. George, an engineer, was keen to settle down, yet he lacked any aptitude for the games of Western wooing. After an epistolary courtship via a dating website, the two get married and begin a life of slow mutual discovery. Within this straightforward arc lurk larger ideas: about love, destiny, choices, and the immigrant experience. Freudenberger’s gifts as a writer are in spinning yarns that are engrossing and wise, with just enough suspense to build momentum. . . . She explores here the sharp contrasts and amusing discoveries of a world glimpsed through foreign eyes [and] with a light touch, conveys the gamble of choosing one’s destiny.”  —The Economist 
 
“Beautiful . . . Strong.  [This is] the story of a 24-year-old from Bangladesh who moves to Rochester, NY, to marry a man she met online for love. She’s never left her home country, and only met her fiancé once—but to those around her, the fact that the marriage is unarranged is the oddest part. The story follows her assimilation into American culture, and her struggles with establishing her new home, culturally, religiously, psychologically and even sexually. The commentary on women in modern society, as well as their place overseas, will jolt you into thinking about gender roles, and the constant tension in discussions about marriage, both arranged and for love, is provocative. Most importantly, Freudenberger’s narrative is also a discovery for her main character, Amina, of her own strength. Turns out that the process of writing The Newlyweds was one of evolution for the author, a busy mother and strong woman herself.” —Meredith Turits, Glamour

“Surprising . . . riveting. [The Newlyweds] succeeds based on Freudenberger’s uncanny ability to feel her way inside Amina’s skin as she takes courageous, self-sacrificing steps toward realizing her dream. Caught between two worlds, Amina begins to know herself and to understand the inevitable limits of her choices. . . . For all its global sophistication, the most remarkable accomplishment of this hugely satisfying novel is Freudenberger’s subtle exploration of the stage of adulthood at the heart of The Newlyweds, and all the compromises with selfhood those early years of love and marriage entail.” —Jane Ciabattari, Los Angeles Times

“The union at the heart of Freudenberger’s gentle new novel is not of the Cupid’s arrow bliss the title evokes. George and Amina’s marriage, though not lacking in affection, is more of a leap of faith than most. . . . The Newlyweds is about all sorts of complex relationships: between parents and children; with first loves; with the places we depart and those we adopt, and ‘the many selves’ this fluidity creates. Freudenberger does an especially lovely job creating Amina’s worlds—her emotional terrain, her wonder and bewilderment adjusting to America, her life in Bangladesh.”  —Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi, The Seattle Times

“A merging of lives, a collision of cultures—these themes are at the heart of Freudenberger’s fine second novel . . . Amina Mazid ‘meets’ George Stillman on a dating website. He’s 10 years older, looking to get married and start a family. She dreams of a better life in America. After nearly a year of corresponding online, George travels to Amina’s home village to meet her family, and they become engaged. Yet both hide secrets that will complicate their relationship. By the following spring, they’re living together in Rochester. Several aspects of Amina’s new life prove puzzling: American megastores, such as WalMart and Bed, Bath and Beyond, overwhelm her. In conversation, she doesn’t understand the concept of sarcasm. And she has no idea what a snooze button is. Yet Freudenberger doesn’t simply trace cultural misunderstandings on an amusing or superficial level. She delves into more serious issues between Amina and George. . . .The Newlyweds crosses continents, cultures and generations. . . . It’s funny, gracefully written and full of loneliness and yearning. It’s also a candid, recognizable story about love—the real-life kind, which is often hard and sustained by hope, kindness, and pure effort.” —Carmela Ciuraru, USA Today 
 
“A lonely man in upstate New York decides that American women don’t suit him, so he takes to the Internet. Half a world away in Bangladesh, a determined young woman posts an ad on a matchmaking site for Western men and Asian women. They’re George and Amina, the newlyweds in the second novel from Freudenberger, decorated by The New Yorker and Granta as a promising young fictionnaire. You may think you know how this story goes, but as they say on Facebook, it’s complicated. As Amina cautiously shapes a life in her new country of Starbucks and suburbs, she and her spouse stubbornly resist settling into cliché. Freudenberger’s central couple are more than well-crafted characters; they shimmer with believability and self-contradicting nuance. . . . As the tale traces their tumultuous first years together, George and Amina’s union is revealed as hardly standard, but at once idiosyncratic and universal. . . . Fluid and utterly confident.” —Allison Williams, Time Out New York (four stars)
 
“A true triumph . . . Freudenberger’s most successful book yet. The Newlyweds’ s appealing protagonist, Amina, is a young, slender Bengali (e)mail order bride who grew up in and around Dhaka. The novel follows her to Rochester, NY, where she meets her fiancé George, learns the meaning of words like ‘dumbstruck’ and how to shovel snow, and gets a job at a sales clerk at a store called MediaWorks. Where Freudenberger excels is in her understanding of familial love and the comical side of learning to live in a foreign land . . . Amina is unpretentious, a character who shares a common language with the reader. Her perceptions of her new life are inflected by her unfamiliarity with America, and those of her past in Dhaka are brought to life in an angry vividness. Freudenberger’s masterful prose makes comprehensible how someone can become a stranger in two places at once.” —Michael Woodsmall, New York Observer

“Captivating . . . Freudenberger’s latest novel explores the unexpected consequences when two distinct cultures collide. . . . This engaging story, with its page after page of effortless prose, ultimately offers up a deeper narrative of the protagonist’s yearning.” —S. Kirk Walsh, The Boston Globe 
 
“After Amina Mazid of Bangladesh meets George Stillman of Rochester, NY, on a dating site, she leaves everything that is familiar and travels across the world to become his wife. Freudenberger shows us Amina in all her complexity: ambitious, devoted, intelligent, ambivalent and, when alone with George, sexually curious . . . Amina and George keep secrets from each other that threaten their fragile bond, and the author takes her time letting them unfold. The relationship between reader and writer is always something of an arranged marriage, in the sense that the reader enters a stranger’s sensibility, hoping for the best. Amina and George may have a complicated connection, but Newlyweds is an unambiguous success.” —Meg Wolitzer, More Magazine

“Evocative . . . From the time she broke into The New Yorker at age 26 with her first-ever published short story, Freudenberger has been regarded as a heavyweight literary phenom. . . . The latest feather in [her] cap is The Newlyweds. It’s really, really good. As always, [she] is fascinated by culture clash, here encapsulated in the marriage of a young woman from Bangladesh and an American engineer from Rochester, New York, who’s 10 years her senior. This is not a love match. Lonely George wants a family; Amina recognizes that her aging parents’ security depends on her making a good marriage, particularly since her father is something of a Bengali Willy Loman. . . . [But] The Newlyweds is so much more than a ‘lost-in-translation’ romp: There are soulful depths to the sociology. Both Amina and George had been in love with other people before they resorted to international computer dating and the novel, which roams in a twisting, lavish storyline between America and Bangladesh, explores the strong and sometimes disastrous pull of those earlier attachments. The Newlyweds also tackles the promise of America and the payment—practical and psychic—it demands of immigrants. . . . [A] luscious and intelligent novel that will stick with you. . . . Freudenberger keep[s] the wonderfulness coming.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR

“Freudenberger returns to the theme of cultural identity through the story of a 24-year-old Bangladeshi who leaves her native country and religious circle to marry an American whom she met online. Settling in Rochester, New York, Amina’s happiness is elusive. . . . When [she] makes her first visit back home, she finds her relatives critical of her. It forces Amina to think about how being part of a close-knit group can be oppressive—and leads readers to consider the conflict between the weight of family obligations and individual desires. Through Amina, Freudenberger explores how technology and the global economy have changed marriage and religion, and raises questions about the limits of cultural adaptation. Freudenberger has also created an unforgettable character: Amina’s determination, intelligence, and resilience make her a heroine for any culture and any time.” —Emily Witt, Marie Claire
 
“A modern-day variety of arranged marriage. George and Amina, the husband and wife of The Newlyweds, have met on the matchmaking website AsianEuro.com. . . . [But] Freudenberger is doing much more here than writing an exposé of the tawdry system of mail-order brides. . . . Amina, through whose eyes the story is told, is intelligent and self-sufficient—she works a retail job even as she takes care of the house and studies for her citizenship exam. Parts of The Newlyweds might be about the learning curve faced by any freshly married couple—in Amina’s most trenchant line, she says to George: ‘At first we were puzzle pieces. Now we are the puzzle.’ But the marriage is still founded on an essential inequality, and The Newlyweds is quietly damning in showing how George almost unthinkingly exploits the power that comes with having money. Amina feels herself being subtly molded into the kind of spouse—pragmatic and low-maintenance—that George would like her to be . . . The distance between Amina’s American self and her Bangladeshi self is perceptively explored by Freudenberger. Like writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Ha Jin, she deftly shows how strange the rituals of suburban America seem to an observant outsider.” —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal 
 
“Once certain borders are crossed, it’s impossible to truly go home again—or so finds Amina, the intrepid young Bangladeshi e-mail-order bride at the center of Freudenberger’s quietly compelling second novel. Arriving in suburban Rochester to start a life with her engineer husband, the cautiously game Amina embarks on a new life filled with curious challenges—balancing college classes with a job at Starbucks; unfathomable quantities of snow; and the difficult-to-read friendliness of Americans. But neither does Amina feel quite like herself back in her village, where she returns, green card in hand, to bring her parents to America, only to find herself drawn in by potent family resentments (and the sympathy of a former suitor). Amina’s American dreaming isn’t about self-invention but about reconciling her own contested boundaries, and her journey through the foreign continent of marriage, full of daily encounters with the unknown, takes on an epic power.” —Megan O’Grady, Vogue

“A delight, one of the easiest book recommendations of the year. The cross-cultural tensions and romance so well drawn here recall the pleasures of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. On a recent trip, I read most of The Newlyweds out loud to my wife, and we both fell in love with Freudenberger’s Bangladeshi heroine. Freudenberger is that rare artist who speaks fluently from many different cultural perspectives, without preciousness or undue caution. She understands the complicated negotiations that always attend contacts between people of radically different backgrounds. The Newlyweds explores the tangled misimpressions and deceptions that separate Amina and George—and sometimes bind them together. Freudenberger knows Amina as well as Jane Austen knows Emma, and despite its globe-spanning set changes, The Newlyweds offers a reading experience redolent of Janeite charms: gentle touches of social satire, subtly drawn characters and dialogue that expresses far more than its polite surface. And how Freudenberger keeps the chapters moving is a mystery of perpetual motion . . . Much of the appeal of The Newlyweds is the way Amina and George negotiate the demands of their respective families with a mixture of affection and exasperation. Moving gracefully between the suburbs of Rochester and the aromatic markets of Dhaka, the novel locates that unsettling inflection point when we shift from being cared for by our parents to caring for them—without ever losing the need to please them, to win their approval, to make them happy. . . . Suspended between two cultures, two homes 8,000 miles apart, Amina wonders if there’s an essential identity that exists ‘beneath languages’ [and she] can’t escape her suspicion that the price of assimilation is too high.  George and Amina soon realize, as any couple must, that they don’t know as much about each other as they once believed. After all, an online algorithm is so primitive compared with the intimate knowledge a village matchmaker can offer a young couple in the villages of Bangladesh. On either side of the world, making a marriage work demands casting off not just old lovers, but cherished fantasies about who we are. Whether these two alien lovebirds can—or should—do that is the question Freudenberger poses so beguilingly.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post 
 
“Affecting . . . A genuinely moving story about a woman trying to negotiate two cultures, balancing her parents’ expectations with her own aspirations, her ambition and cynical practicality with deeper, more romantic yearnings. . . . Writing about a foreign country kick[s] Freudenberger’s gift for observation into high gear, and she does a visceral job of conjuring the place where Amina grew up: the countryside ‘so green that you almost expected to look up and see a green sun in the sky; the city streets, hazardous with mobs and rickshaws and pools of black sewage.’ Here there are roaches in the hospital corridors and the danger of violent assaults in which acid is thrown at an enemy. But here there is also a dense network of extended family, family friends and neighbors, a support system in the face of the swirling whirlpools of fortune. Freudenberger captures Amina’s confusion, her sense of being caught between two cultures, for having become someone who is regarded as an outsider in both her new adopted country and the country she still thinks of as home.  . . . The Amina-Nasir relationship and Amina’s relationship with her aging parents are the nucleus of this novel and reveal the contradictions deep within Amina’s own heart. These are real, complex, deeply felt connections that have both endured and changed over time, and in depicting them, Freudenberger demonstrates her assurance as a novelist and her knowledge of the complicated arithmetic of familial love, and the mathematics of romantic passion.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times 
 
“Freudenberger is aware of the pitfalls she faces in telling us Amina’s tale, and she wants us to be aware of them, too. At stake here isn’t—or shouldn’t be—the question of authenticity; the more pressing issue is verisimilitude, truthlikeness, the illusion of being real. [As] a work in the realist vein, truthlikeness is important to [The Newlyweds’] ambitions, and Freudenberger brings impressive attributes to bear in achieving it: a powerful sense of empathy, of being able to imagine what it is to be someone else, to feel what someone else feels; an effective writing style that avoids drawing attention to itself; and an international sensibility, which allows her to write about places outside America not as peripheral—mere playgrounds for American characters—but as central to themselves. . . . Set largely in Dhaka and Rochester, with stopovers in New York City and rural Bangladesh, the love polyhedron that is The Newlyweds is at heart a tale of never-ending migrations. Its world is full of mirrors, the refracted similarities conjured up by globalization. Upstate New Yorkers wear elements of South Asian garb to yoga studios, and a young man pulls a Bangladeshi rickshaw in ‘a lungi and a black T-shirt with a picture of the Sydney Opera House in neon green.’ But differences remain, and one of these lies on attitudes toward relationships between younger adults and the elderly.  . . Truths are indeed present in this novel—in its clear-eyed openness and compassion toward the world, in its nuanced and human representation of Muslim characters and their varying Islams, and in the understanding and sympathy it displays for the nostalgia of migrants—which is to say, for all human beings, even those who are born and die in the same town and travel only in time.” —Mohsin Hamid, The New York Times Book Review

“Dazzling . . . Freudenberger's rich, wise, bighearted novel concerns a young woman who leaves her family in Bangladesh to live in America as the wife of a man she met on the Internet. ‘You're so much more sensible than other women,’ George tells Amina as she sets up housekeeping with him in Rochester, New York. Amina is sensible, yes, as well as thrifty, hardworking, and pious (she wants a proper Muslim wedding in a mosque, with no objection from her Christian husband-to-be). She's also devoted to her parents back home and, as an only child, longs for the day they can move to Rochester too. But Amina is no docile mail-order bride, and George is no easy stereotype either. Each harbors complications, secrets, desires, disappointments—complications the 30-something author probes with a clarity of language and empathy of soul that make her one of the most perceptive and least mannered younger storytellers working today. An experienced traveler throughout Asia, Freudenberger found her inspiration for The Newlyweds in a chance airplane encounter with a woman who was herself bound for an Internet-facilitated marriage to an American man; that new bride, now a friend, gave permission for her life story to be absorbed into fiction. And in return, the writer works with care and respect, giving a full voice to every Deshi aunt, American cousin, and passing employee at the Starbucks where Amina finds a job. Freudenberger moves gracefully between South Asian fantasies of American life and the realities of bone-cold, snow-prone upstate New York—and turns the coming together of newlyweds Amina and George into a readers' banquet. Grade: A.” —Lisa Schwartzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

“In this modern romance, 24-year-old Amina Mazid moves from Bangladesh to New York after falling in love with an engineer over the Internet. The cultural adjustments that follow—and the truths revealed—drive this honest tale.”     —People Stylewatch 
 
“Amina of Dhaka, Bangladesh, meets George of Rochester, New York, on AsiaEuro.com and comes to America to wed. She is smart and disciplined at 24; he is 10 years older, a well-employed loner set in his ways. Her English is excellent, though she claims to find sarcasm difficult to catch even as she slyly employs it. Yes, Amina is a marvelously wily narrator, and Freudenberger greatly advances her standing as a writer skilled in understatement and deadpan wit as she continues her signature exploration of the dynamics between Americans and Southeast Asians in this exceptionally intimate, vivid, and suspenseful novel. . . . This classic tale of missed chances, crushing errors of judgment, and scarring sacrifices, all compounded by cultural differences, is perfectly pitched, piercingly funny, and exquisitely heartbreaking.”  —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review) 
 
“In the first paragraph of Freudenberger’s winning novel, we meet Amina, coatless, in slippers, running to the mailbox, announcing silently to her new neighbors that she has come to stay. But where did she come from, and why? Freudenberger addresses these questions, and many others, in this a thoughtful treatise on cross-cultural relationships tucked into a wry satire of American life.  How will Amina adjust to a society that allows adult children to stop speaking to their parents? More important, how will she deal with George’s betrayals, small and not so small? Freudenberger is too sophisticated to make this a simple tale of a disappointed bride: Amina, for all her ingeniousness, has secrets of her own. That she and George manage to muddle though the first years of marriage is a testament to the power of love and respect; that we care about them all the way through says as much about Freudenberger’s keen observations and generous heart.”  —Sara Nelson, O, The Oprah Magazine 
 
“When we leave home, our self-knowledge and life goals are often thrown into disarray. For dutiful, driven Amina, the woman at the heart of Nell Freudenberger’s densely beautiful novel The Newlyweds, advancing the plan that seemed most favorable to her family—bringing her parents out of Bangladesh to America after gaining citizenship here herself—is initially gratifying.  But when Amina learns that [her new husband] George is not so eager to install her parents in their 3BR split-level—and has a more complicated romantic history than he had let on—her shame is searing. By the time [she] returns to Bangladesh to fetch her parents, we don’t know whether she will go back to George or pursue her father’s best friend’s handsome, worldly son, for whom she finds she feels intense desire. Even more stirring than this tension is [her] growing understanding that moving forward often involves losing one’s grip. Freudenberger, a deliciously precise and perceptive writer, loosely based Amina on a woman she met on an airplane, and when she describes Amina’s recognition ‘that the permanent part of your own experience’ is largely an illusion, we can only be glad they struck up what must have been a helluva conversation.”—Louisa Kamps, ELLE

“Freudenberger draws women's complex lives as brilliantly as Austen or Wharton or Woolf, and, with The Newlyweds, has given a performance of beauty and grace.” —Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Story of a Marriage

“A big, complicated portrait of marriage, culture, family, and love. Freudenberger never settles for an easy answer, and what she delivers is a story that feels absolutely true. Every minute I was away from this book I was longing to be back in the world she created.” —Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder

“Exceptional . . . Here is an honest depiction of life as most people actually live it: Americans and Asians, Christians and Muslims, liberals and conservatives. Freudenberger writes with a cultural fluency that is remarkable and in a prose that is clean, intelligent, and very witty.” —David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World 
 
“Once in a while, you come across a novel with characters so rich and nuanced, and situations so pitch-perfect, that you forget you're reading fiction. The Newlyweds is that sort of novel. I was floored by it—captivated from beginning to end. And now that I'm done, I can't stop thinking about it.” —J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine
 
“Wise, timely, ripe with humor and complexity, The Newlyweds is one of the most believable love stories of our young century.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
 
“Limpid, precise prose, clear as glass, magnifies, slows, and allows us into the heart of this love story set in a globalized time. Freudenberger has rare humanity, and talent great enough to command not only a vast landscape of imbalance and misunderstanding, but also a tender sphere of tiny intimacy, hidden yearning. The Newlyweds is a marvelous book.” —Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss

Kirkus Reviews
Freudenberger (The Dissident, 2006, etc.) examines a marriage arranged via the Internet. They met on AsianEuro.com: Amina wanted to escape from her family's straitened circumstances in Bangladesh; George wanted someone who "did not play games, unlike some women he knew." So here she is, in the fall of 2005 in the suburbs of Rochester, N.Y., recently married, working in retail while she studies for a teaching certificate. Her husband seems nice, if a little fussy, but he hasn't said any more about converting to Islam as she promised her parents, and they haven't had a Muslim wedding yet either. More disconcerting than any of that, though, is Amina's sense that "she was a different person in Bangla than she was in English," and she's uncertain how to bridge the gulf between these two selves. She makes a much-needed friend in George's cousin Kim, who lived for a while in Bombay and was briefly married to an Indian. Kim understands more about Amina's background and her conflicts than anyone else in Rochester, so when it turns out that she and George have been hiding something important from Amina, it's doubly shattering. However, it does prompt George to agree to bring Amina's parents to America, and she goes to collect them in Bangladesh, where several old family conflicts flare anew. Freudenberger does well in capturing the off-kilter feelings of a young woman in a country so unlike her birthplace, and the cultural differences prompt some enjoyably wry humor. The characters are all well drawn, if a trifle pallid, which points to a larger problem. Freudenberger's tone is detached and cool throughout, even when violent incidents are described, which makes it difficult to emotionally engage with the story. The novel is carefully researched rather than emotionally persuasive. Well executed but a bit too obviously studied--more willed than felt.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307388971
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/12/2013
Series:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
530,728
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

1

She hadn’t heard the mailman, but Amina decided to go out and check. Just in case. If anyone saw her, they would know that there was someone in the house now during the day while George was at work. They would watch Amina hurrying coatless to the mailbox, still wearing her bedroom slippers, and would conclude that this was her home. She had come to stay.

The mailbox was new. She had ordered it herself with George’s credit card, from mailboxes.com, and she had not chosen the cheapest one. George had said that they needed something sturdy, and so Amina had turned off the Deshi part of her brain and ordered the heavy-­duty rural model, in glossy black, for $90. She had not done the conversion into taka, and when it arrived, wrapped in plastic, surrounded by Styrofoam chips, and carefully tucked into its corrugated cardboard box—­a box that most Americans would simply throw away but that Amina could not help storing in the basement, in a growing pile behind George’s Bowflex—­she had taken pleasure in its size and solidity. She showed George the detachable red flag that you could move up or down to indicate whether you had letters for collection.

“That wasn’t even in the picture,” she told him. “It just came with it, free.”

The old mailbox had been bashed in by thugs. The first time had been right after Amina arrived from Bangladesh, one Thursday night in March. George had left for work on Friday morning, but he hadn’t gotten even as far as his car when he came back through the kitchen door, uncharacteristically furious.

“Goddamn thugs. Potheads. Smoking weed and destroying private property. And the police don’t do a fucking thing.”

“Thugs are here? In Pittsford?” She couldn’t understand it, and that made him angrier.

“Thugs! Vandals. Hooligans—­whatever you want to call them. Uneducated pieces of human garbage.” Then he went down to the basement to get his tools, because you had to take the mailbox off its post and repair the damage right away. If the thugs saw that you hadn’t fixed it, that was an invitation.

The flag was still raised, and when she double-­checked, sticking her hand all the way into its black depths, there was only the stack of bills George had left on his way to work. The thugs did not actually steal the mail, and so her green card, which was supposed to arrive this month, would have been safe even if she could have forgotten to check. “Thugs” had a different meaning in America, and that was why she’d been confused. George had been talking about kids, troublemakers from East Rochester High, while Amina had been thinking of dacoits: bandits who haunted the highways and made it unsafe to take the bus. She had lived in Rochester six months now—­long enough to know that there were no bandits on Pittsford roads at night.

American English was different from the language she’d learned at Maple Leaf International in Dhaka, but she was lucky because George corrected her and kept her from making embarrassing mistakes. Americans always went to the bathroom, never the loo. They did not live in flats or stow anything in the boot of the car, and under no circumstances did they ever pop outside to smoke a fag.

Maple Leaf was where she first learned to use the computer, and the computer was how she met George, a thirty-­four-­year-old SWM who was looking for a wife. George had explained to her that he had always wanted to get married. He had dated women in Rochester, but often found them silly, and had such a strong aversion to perfume that he couldn’t sit across the table from a woman who was wearing it. George’s cousin Kim had called him “picky,” and had suggested that he might have better luck on the Internet, where he could clarify his requirements from the beginning.

George told Amina that he had been waiting for a special connection. He was a romantic, and he didn’t want to compromise on just anyone. It wasn’t until his colleague Ed told him that he’d met his wife, Min, on AsianEuro.com that he had thought of trying that particular site. When he had received the first e-­mail from Amina, he said that he’d “had a feeling.” When Amina asked what had given him the feeling, he said that she was “straightforward” and that she did not play games, unlike some women he knew. Which women were those, she had asked, but George said he was talking about women he’d known a long time ago, when he was in college.

She hadn’t been testing him: she had really wanted to know, only because her own experience had been so different. She had been contacted by several men before George, and each time she’d wondered if this was the person she would marry. Once she and George had started e-­mailing each other exclusively, she had wondered the same thing about him, and she’d continued wondering even after he booked the flight to Dhaka in order to meet her. She had wondered that first night when he ate with her parents at the wobbly table covered by the plasticized map of the world—­which her father discreetly steadied by placing his elbow somewhere in the neighborhood of Sudan—­and during the agonizing hours they had spent in the homes of their Dhaka friends and relatives, talking to each other in English while everyone sat around them and watched. It wasn’t until she was actually on the plane to Washington, D.C., wearing the University of Rochester sweatshirt he’d given her, that she had finally become convinced it was going to happen.

It was the first week of September, but the leaves were already starting to turn yellow. George said that the fall was coming early, making up for the fact that last spring had been unusually warm: a gift to Amina from the year 2005—­her first in America. By the time she arrived in March most of the snow was gone, and so she had not yet experienced a real Rochester winter.

In those first weeks she had been pleased to notice that her husband had a large collection of books: biographies (Abraham Lincoln, Anne Frank, Cary Grant, Mary Queen of Scots, John Lennon, and Napoléon) as well as classic novels by Charles Dickens, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, and Jane Austen. George told Amina that he was a reader but that he couldn’t understand people who waded through all of the garbage they published these days, when it was possible to spend your whole life reading books the greatness of which had already been established.

George did have some books from his childhood, when he’d been interested in fantasy novels, especially retellings of the Arthurian legend and anything to do with dragons. There was also a book his mother had given him, 1001 Facts for Kids, which he claimed had “basically got him through the stupidity of elementary school.” In high school he had put away the 1001 Facts in favor of a game called Dungeons & Dragons, but there were now websites that served the same purpose, and George retained a storehouse of interesting tidbits that he periodically related to Amina.

“Did you know that there is an actual society made up of people who believe the earth is flat?”

“Did you know that one out of twenty people has an extra rib?”

“Did you know that most lipstick contains fish scales?”

For several weeks Amina had answered “No” to each of these questions, until she gradually understood that this was another colloquialism—­perhaps more typical of her new husband than of the English language—­simply a way of introducing a new subject that did not demand an actual response.

“Did you know that seventy percent of men and sixty percent of women admit to having been unfaithful to their spouse, but that eighty percent of men say they would marry the same woman if they had the chance to live their lives over again?”

“What do the women say?” Amina had asked, but George’s website hadn’t cited that statistic.

George had said that they could use the money he’d been “saving for a rainy day” for her to begin studying at Monroe Community College next year, and as soon as her green card arrived, Amina planned to start looking for a job. She wanted to contribute to the cost of her education, even if it was just a small amount. George supported the idea of her continuing her studies, but only once she had a specific goal in mind. It wasn’t the degree that counted but what you did with it; he believed that too many Americans wasted time and money on college simply for the sake of a fancy piece of paper. And so Amina told him that she’d always dreamed of becoming a real teacher. This was not untrue, in the sense that she had hoped her tutoring jobs at home might one day lead to a more sustained and distinguished kind of work. What she didn’t mention to George was how important the U.S. college degree would be to everyone she knew at home—­a tangible symbol of what she had accomplished halfway across the world.

She was standing at the sink, chopping eggplant for dinner, when she saw their neighbor Annie Snyder coming up Skytop Lane, pushing an infant in a stroller and talking to her little boy, Lawson, who was pedaling a low plastic bike. The garish colors and balloon-­like shapes of that toy reminded Amina of a commercial she had seen on TV soon after she’d arrived in Rochester, in which real people were eating breakfast in a cartoon house. Annie had introduced herself when Amina had moved in and invited her out for coffee. Then she’d asked if Amina had any babysitting experience, because she was always looking for someone to watch the kids for an hour or two while she did the shopping or went to the gym.

She asks that because you’re from someplace else, George had said. She sees brown skin and all she can think of is housecleaning or babysitting. He told her she was welcome to go to Starbucks with Annie, but under no circumstances was she to take care of Annie’s children, even for an hour. Amina was desperate to find a job, but secretly she was glad of George’s prohibition. American babies made her nervous, the way they traveled in their padded strollers, wrapped up in blankets like precious goods from UPS.

She had never worried about motherhood before, since she’d always known she would have her own mother to help her. When she and George had become serious, Amina and her parents had decided that she would do everything she could to bring them to America with her. Only once they’d arrived did she want to have her first child. They’d talked their plan through again and again at home, researching the green card and citizenship requirements—­determining that if all went well, it would be three years from the time she arrived before her parents could hope to join her. Just before she left, her cousin Ghaniyah had shown her an article in Femina called “After the Honeymoon,” which said that a couple remained newlyweds for a year and a day after marriage. In her case, Amina thought, the newlywed period would last three times that long, because she wouldn’t feel truly settled until her parents had arrived.

In spite of all the preparation, there was something surprising about actually finding herself in Rochester, waiting for a green card in the mail. The sight of Annie squatting down and retrieving something from the netting underneath the stroller reminded her that she had been here six months already and had not yet found an opportunity to discuss her thoughts about children or her parents’ emigration with George.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

“A big, complicated portrait of marriage, culture, family, and love. . . . Every minute I was away from this book I was longing to be back in the world she created.” —Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder

“Riveting. [The Newlyweds] succeeds based on Freudenberger’s uncanny ability to feel her way inside Amina’s skin.” —Los Angeles Times 

“A delight, one of the easiest book recommendations of the year. . . . The cross-cultural tensions and romance so well drawn here recall the pleasures of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. . . . The Newlyweds offers a reading experience redolent of Janeite charms: gentle touches of social satire, subtly drawn characters and dialogue that expresses far more than its polite surface. . . . On either side of the world, making a marriage work demands casting off not just old lovers, but cherished fantasies about who we are. Whether these two alien lovebirds can—or should—do that is the question Freudenberger poses so beguilingly.” —The Washington Post 

 
“A marvelous book.” —Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss
 
“The relationship between reader and writer is always something of an arranged marriage, in the sense that the reader enters a stranger’s sensibility, hoping for the best. Amina and George may have a complicated connection, but Newlyweds is an unambiguous success.” —Meg Wolitzer, More

“A genuinely moving story about a woman trying to negotiate two cultures, balancing her parents’ expectations with her own aspirations, her ambition and cynical practicality with deeper, more romantic yearnings.  . . . Freudenberger demonstrates her assurance as a novelist and her knowledge of the complicated arithmetic of familial love, and the mathematics of romantic passion.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Parts of The Newlyweds might be about the learning curve faced by any freshly married couple. . . . Like writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Ha Jin, she deftly shows how strange the rituals of suburban America seem to an observant outsider.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Freudenberger’s central couple are more than well-crafted characters; they shimmer with believability and self-contradicting nuance. . . . Fluid and utterly confident.” —Time Out New York

The Newlyweds is so much more than a ‘lost-in-translation’ romp: There are soulful depths to the sociology. . . . [A] luscious and intelligent novel that will stick with you. . . . Freudenberger keeps the wonderfulness coming.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR

“Freudenberger brings impressive attributes to bear in [The Newlyweds]: a powerful sense of empathy, of being able to imagine what it is to be someone else, to feel what someone else feels; an effective writing style that avoids drawing attention to itself; and an international sensibility, which allows her to write about places outside America not as peripheral—mere playgrounds for American characters—but as central to themselves.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Once in a while, you come across a novel with characters so rich and nuanced, and situations so pitch-perfect, that you forget you're reading fiction. The Newlyweds is that sort of novel. I was floored by it—captivated from beginning to end. And now that I'm done, I can’t stop thinking about it.” —J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine

“That Amina and George manage to muddle though the first years of marriage is a testament to the power of love and respect; that we care about them all the way through says as much about Freudenberger’s keen observations and generous heart.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

The Newlyweds crosses continents, cultures and generations. . . . It’s funny, gracefully written and full of loneliness and yearning. It’s also a candid, recognizable story about love—the real-life kind, which is often hard and sustained by hope, kindness, and pure effort.” —USA Today

“Freudenberger draws women's complex lives as brilliantly as Austen or Wharton or Woolf, and, with The Newlyweds, has given a performance of beauty and grace.” —Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Story of a Marriage

“Rich, wise, bighearted. . . . Freudenberger works with care and respect, giving a full voice to every Deshi aunt, American cousin, and passing employee at the Starbucks where Amina finds a job. Freudenberger moves gracefully between South Asian fantasies of American life and the realities of bone-cold, snow-prone upstate New York—and turns the coming together of newlyweds Amina and George into a readers’ banquet.” —Entertainment Weekly, Grade: A

“A true triumph.” —The New York Observer

“Captivating. . . . This engaging story, with its page after page of effortless prose, ultimately offers up a deeper narrative.” —The Boston Globe

“Wise, timely, ripe with humor and complexity, The Newlyweds is one of the most believable love stories of our young century.”—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story

“Amina’s determination, intelligence, and resilience make her a heroine for any culture and any time.” —Marie Claire
 
“Exceptional . . . Here is an honest depiction of life as most people actually live it: Americans and Asians, Christians and Muslims, liberals and conservatives. Freudenberger writes with a cultural fluency that is remarkable and in a prose that is clean, intelligent, and very witty.” —David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World 

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