The story, from the small blurb on my reader's edition, initially seems an intriguing one. An inter-racial, inter-national, inter-religious couple falls in love on-line and, once married, sorts out what marriage is all about. However, characterizing this book as a" richly observed story of love and marriage" seems to me to be a gross misrepresentation. This is not a book about marriage; it is a book about one particular, marriage which is mostly a side note to the story of a determined woman's desire to bring herself and her parents to live in the 'First World'. Love for each other plays a very small part in the actions of the two partners.
I found the first quarter of the book to be the weakest due to a very evident lack of research. The author's non Bangla background comes through very strongly in the depiction of the main character's motivations, speech, familial expectations, etc. which sound completely American. I felt that the author did not really get into the head of her Bangladeshi heroine who, supposedly, was still close to her roots in the village. Cross cultural differences (beyond just speaking English mildly differently) are not explored and the dialogue among the Bangladeshi family could belong to an American drawing room. Amina's parents' support for her plan to find a husband online (so that all of them can emigrate to the US), their willingness to send her overseas with a man they have only met for a week and the fact that a fiancée visa to the US was arranged within a week was mindboggling.
Amina's arrival in the US is a casual event. It is as if she just moved from one state to another - or switched from Europe to the US. Yes small differences pop up but for the most part it is smooth sailing. If there is a shocking effect on people from the US when they visit third world countries, things are equally shocking going the other way. The author misses the chance to explore the trauma of immigration and instead casually points out a few differences as if she is sprinkling in anecdotes heard from real immigrants to try and make the book more believable.
What the author does initially try to do is explore the fact that this is a marriage between two people of different faiths. Islam, however, is an encroaching threat in this book and something that Amina promptly pushes out of her life in the US. George's promised conversion to Islam falls by the wayside and the exploration of their differences in religion fizzles out quickly. Amina seems to only encounter flat one dimensional Americans without layers of personality. Kim is a stereotypical hippie, yogi, backpacker; Cathy's character is a a depository of all things ignorant and intolerant, her co workers are never fully drawn in and George - well, George is so mildly drawn as to be non existent!
Where the author really hits her stride is in the last quarter of the book where the marriage (and pathetic George) fade in to the background and Amina returns to Bangladesh to bring her parents back to the US. Her longing for the old and familiar, even if it is dangerous and filthy, will speak to any emigrant. The beauty of the Bangladeshi countryside is all the more obvious to her for her knowledge that she may never see it again. While the old traditions make family life so constrained and always open to criticism, she compares it to the loneliness of living in the US and questions which way is better.
However, the tension created at the end is not enough to save the book. Amina's wishy washy attitude towards her own marriage, inconsistencies in the text, threads that are begun and then lost and Amina's very confusing hopes regarding her cousin made the book seem almost unfinished when it finally ended. My biggest question was not what happened to Amina, or her parents but what happened to George? His character was the least developed in the book. We barely get a glimpse at him, physical, psychological or in dialogue. He ends up being background music to Amina's waltz through life and his desires, hopes and dreams always take the back seat. His grand deception seems more like dirty laundry compared to what Amina is planning. Vague but always supportive, stereotypical but mostly harmless he ended up being the one I could sympathize with instead of Amina who only came across as a scheming green card hunter of the worst kind. George's only importance in her life seemed to be as a source of income and a way to get her citizenship.
In brief, this is not a book about marriage - it is about how marriage can be used as a means to an end.
Dhaka, Bangladesh is home to Amina Mazid until she starts an on-line relationship with George Stillman, who lives in Rochester, New York. Although each has something hidden in their pasts, Amina, with the blessing of her parents, moves to what she thinks will bring her a happier life than what she's experiencing in Dhaka.
The novel is interesting in showing how the cultural differences between the young couple invite both laughter and anger, but I cannot imagine Bangladeshi parents encouraging their only child to emigrate and marry a non-Muslim man about whom she knows very little.
There are many characters in this book, but none of them became "real" to me, including Amina and George and the storyline was akin to a poor TV soap opera. The winding alleyways, the crowded shops, the smells of the Bangladeshi markets never became alive nor did the small city ways of Rochester. It is an OK novel, but nothing special.
I was very enthusiastic about "The Newlyweds" as I began reading it. Nell Freudenberger can certainly turn a phrase and make you stop and think... and frequently laugh. Also, the initial chapters about the development of the relationship between Amina and George and her acclimation to the US and their acclimation to each other started out as interesting.
But something happened along the way and these to characters -- as well as the huge host of supporting characters -- seemed to become increasingly less compelling and less believable. Moreover, the plot line revolving around Amina's father introduced into the second half of the book seemed unnecessary and reduced the act of reading to a slog, which is ironic as I believe much of this part of the story was intended to be suspenseful.
At the end of the book, I didn't really care how any of the storylines resolved themselves or about any of the characters; I was mostly just glad to be finished. And given the strong start to the book, this result was particularly disappointing.
I received this book through the Amazon Vine program. I had decided to request it primarily because I had read that it is set in Rochester, New York. I live in Rochester.
While the character of Amina is fairly well developed -- you understand her motivations and desires -- but you still get the feeling that she is not quite real. In some ways, her husband's cousin Kim seems more real than Amina. The husband, George, is just a sketch. The dialogue seems lifeless. There is only one place in the entire novel where the exchange between George and Amina seemed to have some blood and some life. (spoiler ahead). Amina and George have been married in the US but they have not been married in a mosque or the International Center as they had planned. It has just been allowed to slide. Amina is working on a plan to bring her parents to Rochester but it will be eight months until they can get their Visas and make the journey. Amina decides that she and George will be married at the International Center when her parents arrive so that they can be there and witness it. Until then, she tells George that she will no longer sleep with him. (There are other reasons for her deciding on this defacto separation but revealing them would give away too much of the story). George is reluctantly willing to comply but at one point he protests the arrangement, "For God's sake, we're married." Amina responds "Your God. Not mine."
Reading "The Newlyweds", I recalled another novel with a similar theme: Com Toibin's "Brooklyn." In this novel a young woman travels from Ireland to Brooklyn, not to marry but to find work. There are many similarities in the themes but "Brooklyn" is a far better novel. Read that one instead of this one.
For the first fifty pages or so, The Newlyweds gives every promise of being a fine novel. The Internet courtship of a Bangladeshi young woman, Amina Mazid, and George Stillman, an American engineer who lives in Rochester, New York, sets up an arranged marriage for the digital age. This first section of the novel is set in Dhaka, and its narration of the hopes and dreams Amina invests in her suitor, whom she knows only through e-mails, is convincing and affecting. It makes a lovely long short story.
Not long after the novel moves to Rochester, it begins to falter, even though it is in Rochester that the difficulties in the marriage commence. A certain bland predictability creeps in. Amina encounters Americans who have no idea where Bangladesh is or what its customs might be. She finds it difficult to practice her faith. She learns to make lemon squares. Her husband, a decent man, nevertheless turns out to be harboring a secret. Freudenberger writes well, but this section of the novel has a dutiful, workshop quality---everything is carefully and accurately observed, but Amina and George never really come to life. It is hard to care about either of them.
When the novel returns to Bangladesh for its denouement, the action picks up. It's a good thing, as the careful noting of detail, has, by this point, become tedious, particularly as regards Amina's own romantic secret. Enough already. As for the ironic (and quite contrived) twist that ends this too-long novel? You'll find yourself shrugging.
From a modest premise - a Bangladeshi woman comes to America to wed her online match - Nell Freudenberger has created a poignant, vividly drawn drama of how couples live today. I can't vouch for whether the cultural details are accurate - my exposure to Bangladesh consists of having one Bangladeshi employee and working in the country for a very strange week - but the emotional interactions ring true. Amina is a bright woman whose dreams may seem modest by American standards, but for someone coming from her near-destitute background they are indeed "reaching for the stars". How she goes about trying to achieve her dreams - quietly, stubbornly, and pragmatically - makes this story shine.
Freudenberger has managed to create a world that, while quotidian in its essence, is still fascinating to observe. She's filled it with fully three-dimensional characters who for the most part have no great illusions of their place in the world. In their own messy way, they try to make the best of their lives. The Newlyweds doesn't try to grab you with poetic prose or heightened drama. It's a sly book that works by providing the reader a window as to how ordinary people live. The events that transpire are often filled with disappointment and if you're looking for a hope conquers all kind of story you won't find it here. If I have any qualms about this book, it's in the portrait of the husband, George. While I know many electrical engineers and many are in fact as wooden as George, it would have been more interesting if he wasn't quite so typical and had some real emotional range.
Nell Freudenberger is a first rate talent who well deserves the praise she's received (and will undoubtedly receive from this novel when it comes out). It may be that she is more of a "writer's writer" than someone who will ever find a major audience. There is a level of detail and richness in this subtle book that is rare and exemplary.
I came to this book with great expectations. The New York Times had given its review prime placement on its Sunday book section cover. The Washington Post review was also a rave. So why did this book turn out to be something I not only could put down, but put down so often that it took me 10 days to plow through its 335 pages? Well, the main thing, I think, was that, until the last 50 or 60 pages, the characters and their relationships with each other just never seemed to come alive for me.
This is the story of Amina, a young Muslim woman from Bangladesh who, following her parents' hopes and wishes for a better life for her and themselves, gives up her dream of marrying her countryman, Nasir, and instead goes looking for an American marriage prospect online. There she meets George, an electrical engineer from Rochester, New York, who longs to be a husband and father but hasn't been having much luck with that on the homefront, for reasons unclear, at least not at the beginning. An e-mail courtship ensues, George comes to Bangladesh and proposes, Amina moves to America and they marry.
George neglects to mention to Amina some pertinent information from his past. And Amina neglects to mention to George that she comes as a package deal with her parents who'll be coming to live with them as soon as Amina gains American citizenship. These secrets will eventually come to light and each will feel betrayed, at least briefly, but being basically passive people, they learn to live with it. Most of the story tells of their first three years together--she finds day jobs in a book store, then a yoga studio and then a Starbucks and goes to community college by night, while also trying to get pregnant, gain American citizenship and save enough to bring her parents to America; he gets laid off.
After a slog-along of some 275 pages or so, Amina returns to Bangladesh to bring her parents to America and, at last, some welcome drama, commotion and heartfelt emotion enter the picture.
on October 3, 2012
Perhaps it's generous, rather than damning (as in the top voted review here) to look at this book for what it is NOT:
It's not about India, although the neighboring giant does play a part. But there have been many books, many of them excellent, about the Indian immigrant experience. More or less a decade after White Teeth and Brick Lane, it was about time Bangladesh got some fictional love stateside. It's not about first entry points of choice like, say, New York City or L.A., either; Rochester, NY it is, befitting a quieter, not frantic tone of the tale.
It's not sappy. The crying and weeping over some life-altering decisions and occurrences is demure and dignified. When, instead, the author succeeds in making the reader feel a pang of loss in the final scene, that's quite a success.
The people that this is purportedly about are not walking caricatures of their cultures. George, the American husband, is neither Joe Sixpack bullying his e-mail-order bride nor a highborn scion presenting the land of opportunity, as seen by few. Amina isn't deluded about her life in America. Although she hails from a modest background (poor by U.S. standards), it's presented richly and not as simple, and the fish-out-of-water aspect upon her arrival in the States is kept at bay. All Americans aren't fat, crude and clueless, and there are only two post-9/11-based unjust hostilities, one happening not even to her but an Indian guy (who's portrayed as such a finicky rich jerk you almost wish Homeland Security knocked him off his socks, literally).
Stripped of these pitfalls, the book IS, unfortunately, disappointing several promises, starting with the title. I have to second opinions on how it's ultimately not about George and Amina at all. Although George drops an f-bomb on page one, he's such a non-character that I have to admire the authorial blend of enigmatic and bland, which I'd thought impossible. He does get his much needed dramaturgic comeuppance, telegraphed from just about the right distance (whereas a corresponding conflict of Amina's announces itself very early on yet remains unresolved), but he's neutered again until, for more than the last third of the book, he fades altogether. If Amina's emotional responses were shaky before, in this part they're cemented: It's about her parents. Everything is pegged to them: Amina's initial search for a husband, her setup of a life in America, her (mis-)timing of childbirth, it's all a gangway for her to be with her mom and dad, with little room for George other than as a provider. I am not judging the moral positions, just the story value. If it's about Newlyweds, stay with them. Grow with them. If it's about already grown people like Amina's parents who want a new start, like newlyweds, go ahead, give the old folks a voice. The way it's done here, though, raising their auxiliary plot to priority is distracting and feels unnecessary, given how much more could have been yielded out of said purported plot. The crowded populace back in Amina's home country does have a realistic effect, but the question is, were all the nanus and dadus and variably removed cousins and their personal plights needed? My answer: No. Furthermore, as someone with first-hand knowledge, I would argue that the project of making a nailbiter out of visa procedures is doomed, no matter how many hard nails you may bite down in the real process.
The other promise to me was Lucky Girls. Nell Freudenberger was given, and apparently took, a lot of heat for that book being too indulgent, too posey, too elitist, too GOOD to be the real deal. That was one way of looking at it. Another way was to see an American woman who is, yes, young, pretty, well-educated, worldly-wise and also happens to be a really talented writer, and who's a beauty mark in the image of American women writers rather than a zit that should be squeezed out. I had chosen the second way and had expected accordingly. But it's as if Freudenberger chose to dim the writerly sparkle that was once such a confection, and that's unlucky.
on April 18, 2013
It's unanimous, all 8 of our book club members gave this a "thumbs down". There is little to recommend this frustrating and ultimately disappointing novel; the characters are flat and uninteresting, the plot feels disjointed, and the ending is completely unsatisfying. The first part of the novel is bleak and repetitious, the second half spirals out of control with many subplots and extraneous events that lead nowhere. We were left wondering, once again, why this book received positive reviews. Save yourself the time and money.
I really wanted to love this book. The first chapter grabbed my attention so quickly that it seemed as if the rest of the book would have the same momentum. It had an extremely authentic feel to it. But as the story wore on, it became so convoluted and drawn out that I became disinterested. The writing, at times, did hold its promise, but overall the story became ineffective and plodding.