Amina Mazid is married to George Stillman and living in Rochester, New York, but in essential ways, this 24-year-old mail-order bride has never left Bangladesh. In her second novel, Nell Freudenberger (The Dissident) paints another nuanced picture of an Asian émigré living a double life as they attempt to balance their loyalties and beliefs in an adopted land. Now in trade paperback and NOOK Book. (P.S. One reviewer wrote that "[Freudenberger] knows Amina as well as Jane Austen knew Emma.")
Read an Excerpt
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.
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