First highlighted in The New Yorker fiction issue, here is award-winning writer Nell Freudenberger’s debut story collectionLucky Girls is a collection of five novella-like stories, which take place mostly in Asia. The characters—expatriates, often by accident—are attracted to the places they find themselves in a romantic way, or repelled by a landscape where every object seems strange. For them, falling in love can be inseparable from the place where it happens.
Living according to unfamiliar rules, these characters are also vulnerable in unique ways. In the title story, a young woman who has been involved in a five-year affair with a married Indian man feels bound to both her memories and her adopted country after his death. The protagonist of “Outside the Eastern Gate” returns to her childhood home in Delhi, to find a house still inhabited by the impulsive, desperate spirit of her mother, who left her family for a wild journey over the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan. In “Letter from the Last Bastion,” a teenage girl begins a correspondence with a novelist who’s built his reputation writing about his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam and who, in his letters, confides in her a secret about his past.
Highly anticipated in the literary community and beyond, Lucky Girls marks the debut of a very special talent that places her among today’s most gifted young writers.
About the Author
Nell Freudenberger is the author of the novels Lost and Wanted, The Newlyweds and The Dissident, and of the story collection Lucky Girls, which won the PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Named one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” in 2010, she is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a Cullman Fellowship from the New York Public Library. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:April 21, 1975
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Harvard University, 1997; M.F.A., New York University, 2000
Read an Excerpt
I had often imagined meeting Mrs. Chawla, Arun's mother. It would be in a restaurant, and I would be wearing a sophisticated blue suit that my mother had sent me soon after I moved to India, and Mrs. Chawla would not be able to keep herself from admiring it. Of course, in those fantasies Arun was always with me.
As it happened, Mrs. Chawla appeared early one morning, in a car with a driver, unannounced. I was sitting at the kitchen table in my painting shorts, having a cup of tea. There was no time to straighten up the living room or take a shower. I went into the bedroom, where Arun and I had often slept, and put on a dress -- wrinkled, but at least it was clean. I put my cup in the sink and set a pot of water on the stove. Then I watched through the window. Mrs. Chawla had got out of the car and was standing with her arms crossed, instructing her driver how to park. The car moved forward, backed up, and then inched forward again.
Mrs. Chawla shaded her eyes to look at the backyard: the laundry line with my clothes hanging on it, the grackles perched on the telephone pole, the pile of soft, rotting bricks. I had a feeling that had come to seem familiar in the eight months since Arun had died, a kind of panic that made me want to stand very still.
The bell rang.
"Hello, Mrs. Chawla," I said. "I'm glad you came." From her handwriting, I had expected someone more imposing. She was several inches shorter than I was, and heavy. Her hair was long and dyed black, with a dramatic white streak in the front; and she was wearing a navy blue salwar-kameez, the trousers of which were tapered at the ankles, in a style that was just becoming fashionable.
"Yes," she said. "I've been meaning to. I can't stay long." She gave me a funny smile, as if I weren't what she had expected, either.
"Will you have some tea?" I offered.
"Do you have tea?" she asked, sounding surprised. She looked at the drawn blinds in the living room. There was a crumpled napkin next to the salt and pepper shakers on the table, where I had eaten dinner the night before, and which I had asked Puja, the servant, to clean. Now that it was summer, cockroaches had started coming out of the walls.
"Please don't go to any trouble," she said. "Puja can do it -- is she in the kitchen?" Arun had hired Puja to do my cooking and cleaning; when he told me she had worked for his mother, I'd hoped that Mrs. Chawla was making a friendly gesture. In fact, Puja was a terrible housekeeper and a severely limited cook. She lived in a room at the back of the house, with her husband and four little girls; at night I often saw her crouched in the backyard, making chapatis on a pump stove with a low blue flame.
Mrs. Chawla walked confidently toward the kitchen, calling Puja in a proprietary voice, and I realized that Arun's mother had been in my house before. She could have come any number of times, in the afternoons, when I taught art at the primary school or went out shopping in Khan Market. Puja would have let her in without hesitation.
When Mrs. Chawla reappeared, she scrutinized the chairs, before choosing to sit on the sofa. She smiled, revealing a narrow space between her teeth. "Where exactly are you from?" she asked.
"My father lives in Boston, but my mother is in California now," I told her.
"Ah," said Mrs. Chawla softly, as if that explained everything. "An American family. That must make it difficult to decide where to return to."
I had no plans to return, as I should have explained. "It rules out Boston and California," I said instead.
Mrs. Chawla didn't smile.
My brother, I added, was getting married in Boston in July.
"And you like the bride?" she asked.
"Oh," I said. "I only met her once." I could feel the next question coming, and then a thing happened that often happens to me with people who make me nervous.
"What's her name?" Mrs. Chawla asked.
Her name, which I knew perfectly well, slipped into some temporarily unrecoverable place. "Actually, I don't remember," I said.
Mrs. Chawla looked at me, puzzled. "How strange," she said.
Puja brought the tea. She knelt on the floor and began placing things, item by item, on the coffee table: spoons, cups, saucers, milk, sugar, and a small plate of Indian sweets that Mrs. Chawla must have brought with her. The tea, it seemed, was no longer my hospitable gesture.
"How is she doing?" Mrs. Chawla asked, nodding at Puja.
"She's wonderful," I lied. Now that Arun wasn't here to tell her what to do, the house was getting dirtier and dirtier.
Puja's little girls were watching us from the kitchen doorway. When Mrs. Chawla saw them, she said suddenly, "Girls," and repeated it sharply in Hindi. "I have told her that if she has another baby" -- Mrs. Chawla paused and looked at Puja-- "Bas! Enough, I'm sending her back to Orissa." She turned back to me. "That's east India," she informed me, as if I had never seen a map of the subcontinent. "The people there are tribals. Did you know that? Puja is a tribal. These people have nothing, you know, except floods and cyclones. Now they're having terrible floods -- have you seen them on television? Thousands of people are sick, and there isn't enough drinking water. I tell her that, and what do you think she says?"
Puja knew only a few words of English. She seemed to be smiling at her feet, which were bare, extremely small, and decorated with silver toe rings ...Lucky Girls
Stories. Copyright © by Nell Freudenberger. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
|Outside the Eastern Gate||67|
|Letter from the Last Bastion||161|
Reading Group Guide
"I don't have a memory of going to the fort that day, but my father said we did. He said that when I asked, he told me I was too young to go to Afghanistan, and that half an hour later, when he thought I had forgotten, I looked at him -- we were on the lawn, where you could watch the women in pink and yellow saris cutting the grass with machetes -- and said, "What about Afghanistan children?" "Even at that age your logical powers were astonishing," my father said. He had hoped for a long time that I would become a scientist.
I think my father may have misremembered. "Afghanistan children" sounds invented, like something a child would say in a Hollywood movie; in addition, and probably more importantly, I had never had the same status as a brown child, couldn't do the things I saw them doing right in Sunder Nagar -- playing cricket, flying kites, or, outside the gates, selling corn, touching the mangy dogs in the market, carrying smaller children on their backs. I knew that just because it wasn't safe for me to be seven in Afghanistan, that didn't mean there wasn't a whole class of Afghan seven-year-olds for whom it was."
-- from "Outside the Eastern Gate"
Questions for Discussion
- In this collection of five novella-like stories revolving around expatriate Americans living in Asia, each story turns on a moment of self-awareness. In "Outside the Eastern Gate," Nandani says, "traveling is for people who don't know how to be happy." What does she mean by that statement? Do the protagonists of each story eventually realize something about themselves? What is the object of each traveler's search?
- "Although I don'tfeel the need to travel all over the world, I like hearing about foreign places" says Miss Fish in "Letter from the Last Bastion." Content with her life in Lancaster, PA, Miss Fish diverges sharply from the characters in the preceding stories. Miss Fish is also the least privileged of all the major characters. Compare Miss Fish to the narrator's mother, Jean, in "Outside the Eastern Gate," who is perhaps the most restless figure in this collection. Do their dissimilarities stem solely from innate differences in temperament? What are some ideas, presented in Lucky Girls, regarding the unglamorous notion of accepting one's lot in life?
- Following Hemmingway's directive to writers, In "Letter from the Last Bastion" Henry uses the war as a whetstone, and becomes famous for his thinly veiled autobiographical novels. Yet the key passage in his book, "The Birder," never happened. "If you want to tell the true story of your life, you have to include the not only all the things you have done, but all the things you haven't" believes Henry, according to Miss Fish. Are possible courses of action as real as the one actually taken? Ultimately, who is the intended recipient of Miss Fish's letter? How does this story examine a writer's choices and the nature of storytelling?
- In "Letter from the Last Bastion," Francois looks at Henry "as if he were being interrupted by a particularly irritating child." Are the other Americans in Lucky Girls also perceived as children by the people they encounter? Think of Mrs. Chawla's impatience at having to explain Indian social codes to the American mistress of her deceased son, who refuses to leave India, in "Lucky Girls"; the waiter, Chai's, exaggerated Americanisms in "The Orphan"; Nandani's attempts to buffer the children from their mother's rash impulses in "Outside the Eastern Gate." When Zubin, in "The Tutor," is a foreign student in America, he "felt as if he were surrounded by enormous and powerful children." Do you agree with this assessment? Could some American ideals be perceived as naïve when juxtaposed against another cultural backdrop?
- In "The Orphan" Mandy reverses her initial accusation of rape, dismissing what happened as a "cultural misunderstanding." Do you think she's being naïve in the first instance or the second? Mrs. Chawla tells the narrator in "Lucky Girls" that she wasn't invited to her lover's funeral because "Nobody would've known what you were." Do you think these characters understand their foreign surroundings as well as they think they do?
- In "The Orphan," when Alice looks at her recently-separated-from husband, she sees someone "who washes with a different soap, eats a different cereal or doesn't eat cereal, maybe doesn't eat breakfast at all; sleeps naked or with the windows open, listens to opera or salsa of bluegrass: a stranger." How important are these domestic details in truly knowing someone? How important are they to Alice? Consider the family unit as Alice would like it to be -- a postwar suburban ideal of a homemaker mother, authoritative father, sweet and smart daughter and a prodigal younger son. Are these roles anachronistic? How does being in Thailand expose each family member's desires and personalities? At the conclusion of the story, how precarious is Alice's hope of future happiness? Does happiness inevitably involve compromise?
- Alice thinks her children's behave in Thailand as though they "had never been given breakfast, or stayed in an air-conditioned hotel." In "The Tutor," Julia thinks her sister liked to "pretend she was poor...and when she came to visit them in Paris she acted surprised." How does Zubin's inverted experience in America compare to those of the Americans' abroad? Why is does he feel embarrassed about borrowing his American roommate's sweaters, while Julia's sister, like Mandy in "The Orphan," revel in the novelty (or the pretense) of going without?
- In "The Tutor," Zubin returns to India because in doing so "something would fall back in place, not just inside him but in front of him, like lengths of replacement track." If homesickness is, perhaps literally, a sense of dislocation, what is the 'something' that Zubin hoped would fall into place? Has he changed too much after his experiences in America? Consider the definitions of "home" that occur in this story. Julia's father believes that "you can bring your home with you"; in the market, a poster silently and grimly declaims, "Home is where. When you go there, they have to let you in." Do the characters in Lucky Girls fit Zubin's assessment: "Americans could go all over the world and still be Americans; they could live just the way they did at home and nobody wondered who they were, or why they were doing things the ways they did"? How would you define "home?"
- In "Lucky Girls," Arun dislikes the Indian garb on Western women, "because clothes mean something here. Historically. And when you wear them it's for romance, glamour -- you don't mean anything." The narrator of this story admires a buffalo's shiny black coat, only to discover a buffalo carcass thickly covered in black flies. She admires the singing of a bird at night, only to be told that it's the sound an "all-clear" whistle from the patrolling night watchman. To her, "a red cricket ball ... looked like some kind of exotic bloom." Do these moments convey anything in particular about her understanding of India? Does she prove Arun correct despite her attempts to the contrary? In glossing over the malign, or even the ordinary, as beautiful, what sort of reality has she created for herself?
- Consider the narrator's feelings for Arun and India in "Lucky Girls," Mandy's defense of Joo in "The Orphan," Laura's letters regarding Andreas in "Letter from the Last Bastion" -- is love separable from fascination with the exotic in these instances? The narrator's mother in "Outside the Eastern Gate" used to say that going back to America was like "waking up out of the most beautiful dream you'd ever had." Why do you think she relocates so often, venturing into a land more exotic each time? Why do you think she visited the temple in the derelict part of town? Is she searching for spiritual guidance or love? In either case, what compels her to search so far from her home, where her children are tremblingly eager to show her their love?
- Where do these stories fit in the canon of travel literature? Do they rebuke the colonial fantasies of the past? Consider the Orphanage, the hotel, the Jim Thompson House and The Spice Route restaurant In "The Orphan." What do Thais promoting those fantasies for tourist dollars imply? All five novellas are consistent in tone -- ambiguous, wry, with light touches of deadpan humor. Did you find this unsettling? What are your expectations when reading about young women traveling in foreign countries?
About the author
Nell Freudenberger has taught English in Bangkok and New Delhi, and currently lives in New York City. Lucky Girls is her first book.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I did not enjoy this at all, the characters were not likeable, the writing was not inspiring. When I saw that it had won an award I had hope. Perhaps I should dust off my own medicore pieces and see what I come up with.
This is one of the most boring and contrived books written and published in the past years. Very poor character devt and no good sense of narrative and dull, MFA'd cookie-cutter approaches, pass on this one folks.
When I first read the reviews for this book I was very eager to read the stories therein- I had no idea that the reviews would be better than the stories themselves. There is one story in the middle of the book that turned out very well (a good thing, if not I wouldn't have wanted to continue reading) but the other stories proved to be a bit weak in both storyline, and writing. If you'd like to read this book, borrow it from the library.
A New York Times Notable Book; Winner of the PEN/Malamud Award. I wanted to like this book, and in fact I identified with a great deal of it. I understood the differentness of living. . . being identified. . .trying to lose my identity. . .as an American in another country. One story, The Tutor, spoke so clearly to me I cried at the end, filled with admiration. However, the last story, The Last Bastion, was so painful that I couldn't finish it. My problem, I readily admit. I think you should read this. I cannot.
It sounds like it sucks
I used to work in a book store and got this book as an advance reading copy. I LOVED it so much that now I often buy it to give as gifts. A beautiful collection of short stories!
I enjoyed reading one of the author's short stories in The New Yorker, and had eagerly been anticipating this collection. Several of the stories are consisent with the New Yorker story: many of the main characters are expatriats experiencing dilemnas with love, and confusion with where they belong. While I enjoyed the first few stories and found them to be very well written, the later stories, especially the last story about the author, were not as enjoyable. Overall, I found the common themes and tone of the collection to be melancholy and depressing .