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Lucky Girls: Stories Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 14, 2003
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Nell Freudenberger knows from lucky girls. She has had a lot of luck herself in her short writing career: Her debut story was featured in The New Yorker, with a glossy full-color author photo alongside; a quick book contract ensued, on the strength of that one published story; and now comes a debut collection full of stories that are actually good. The Lucky Girls collected here are far-flung Americans, young women trying to figure out where they belong in the world. In "The Tutor," teenage Julia and her businessman father are living in Bombay; her mother has returned to the United States. Julia crams for the SATs with her tutor Zubin, smokes cigarettes, and goes to nightclubs; her father hovers at home. Freudenberger gets just right the moments when Julia and her father find themselves alone together, trying to be a family: "It was just the two of them at the table then; even with the leaves taken out and stored against the wall in the coat closet, they had to half-stand in order to pass the soup." Too, she knows the upper-class world of which she writes. In "The Orphan," Mandy's parents and brother come to visit her in Thailand, where she is working with "AIDS babies." Mandy's brother Josh appears, and Freudenberger skewers his type, neatly, in a sentence: "Josh looks like someone coming out of trench warfare in the Balkans, rather than college in Maine." But Freudenberger isn't telling easy rich-kid stories. She's forever pushing her narration. In "The Tutor," we hear from Zubin, an overeducated Indian, as well as from Julia. "The Orphan," in turn, is told by Mandy's mom, a woman bewildered by yet proud of her daughter's choice to remain in Thailand. Freudenberger's stories are cosmopolitan, expansive, and richly detailed, a beguiling combination of qualities. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
Freudenberger saw her first story, "Lucky Girls," published in the New Yorker's 2001 debut fiction issue and subsequently received a reported six-figure sum to round out the collection with a bunch more (at that time unwritten) works. The gamble has paid off, at least from a critical perspective: the five long stories in this collection are thoughtful and entertaining. Most take place in Asia and feature Americans living abroad. In the title piece, a young American painter recalls her long affair with a married Indian man. The man has died unexpectedly, and the story traces the development of the narrator's antagonistic yet moving relationship with the mother of her late lover. "The Orphan" is a witty story of a middle-aged couple who, along with their college-age son, go to Thailand for Christmas to visit their daughter and break the news of their impending divorce. The daughter, who works at a Bangkok hospital for orphaned AIDS babies, finds her parents benighted and so... Western, while her brother announces that he belongs to the Cool Rich Kids club, whose members seek to give their parents' money away ("it's this chance to endorse the more radical causes that people your age wouldn't support"). In "The Tutor," a romance blossoms between an Indian SAT coach and a Prada-wearing American teenager living in Bombay who wants nothing more than to get into UC-Berkeley. Many of these tales concern the slow birth and disintegration of romantic relationships, although some lack pull, due to their one-dimensional characters. Freudenberger is more inventive and piquant when she probes characters' relationships to their adopted homelands-which, she shows, are often more passionate and grounded than their ties to the people in their lives.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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The collection of five long short stories revolves around five women and their journeys to southeast Asia and India. These women, ranging in age from thirteen to somewhere in the mid to late forties, are American women of some wealth and privilege - `lucky girls' as Freudenberger calls them. Some are born or raised in the east, others travel there. One doesn't even go there but is introduced to Vietnam through a friend's correspondence. Their other commonality is a sense of dissatisfaction with their lives, a disaffection That cannot be conquered by their Material wealth.
Freudenberger opens with "Lucky Girls", a story that was published first in the new Yorker. Its unnamed narrator is a woman in her twenties who travels to India and conducts an affair with unmarried Indian man. After his death, She stays on in India, attached by memory if not blood to that country. She must stake her territory go against his mother and why does she does with admirable stubbornness, winning the grudging respect of Mrs. Chawla the senior, while reiterating her right to status as a woman not bound to a man in any recognizable way.
"The Orphan" chronicles a few days in the life of an American woman who goes to Bangkok with her husband to tell her grown children about their impending divorce. Faced with overwhelming culture shock - her daughter may or may not have been raped by her Thai boyfriend - she retreats into the familiarity and safety of her conjugal bed even though it is crumbling beneath her.
In "The Tutor" Julia, an American teenager in New Delhi, plans to lose her virginity to her Indian SAT tutor, a recent Harvard graduate who is has lost as she is, Despite the longing in every possible way to his country and Culture. These three stories-"Lucky Girls", "The Orphan", and "The Tutor" - are the strongest and most realistic of the five, With sympathetic protagonists, believable dilemmas, and authentic non-resolutions which echo reality rather than the seductive easy endings of fiction.
But sometimes Freudenberger takes ambivalence too far. "Outside the Eastern Gate", which details the impact of maternal abandonment on a small American girl in New Delhi, and "Letter from the Last Bastion", a story about a writer and his teenaged penpal, are confusing and vague, although Freudenberger was attempting a dream-life tone clouded by the haze of memory. Her technique of switching narrators - between the thirteen year old and the older writer in "Last Bastion" and between the daughter, the mother, the father, and the best friend in "Eastern Gate" - is too ambitious and cumbersome to maintain effectively throughout these stories. Freudenberger's astute eye for details results in some heavy-handed prose, as well, with paragraphs of description that weigh down the writing in a way that most writers suffer through in their first attempts.
Still, Freudenberger's strengths are apparent: an ease with language, the eye of a writer and photographer all at once, able to capture images, sensations, and thought in lyrical, elegiac prose. She also commands a remarkable ability to write about the East, making it look normal yet different, without spices, veils, dark-skinned beauties and all the other baggage of orientalism that plagues most books on India and the Far East. Freudenberger controls her short stories with a skill reminiscent of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies. Most of all, Freudenberger has created five short stories that are incredibly readable, to be savored and enjoyed slowly rather than rushed through hurriedly. Freudenberger is a writer with a great deal of talent and a road of stories stretching out before her. Let's hope she lives up to her potential.
However, when I picked up a recent issue of Granta and noticed one of Freudenberger's stories, I read it. And the story that I read, I found to be wonderful. So I bought the book.
Freudenberger, has a way with describing the romantic trysts that permeate the collection. I found the relationship between the young girl and her tutor to be beautifully and insightfully written. Unfortunately, I felt that Freudenberger was trying to hard not to fall into the cliched category that is "women writing about romance" in the rest of her stories and I didn't much get into her writing when she stepped outside of the form and subject matter that she did best. I was especially unmoved by the way that she depicted familial relationships in almost every story (most strongly in the story about the suicidal mother and alzheimer's stricken father - which I loathed)
Overall, I found the collection to be readable, but not riveting. Moreover, I don't believe that I will pick up the next book. There doesn't seem to be a lot of room to move for this author - the stories didn't seem to be brimming with unrealized talent.
It seems that the story that I loved, "The tutor" was a lucky shot.
Honestly, I liked the book so much that I logged on to Amazon to see what else had been written by this author. Sometimes when I read something, I am struck by the craft of the writing. I especially had that feeling when reading "The Last Bastion." The writing was so vivid and realistic that it seemed more a detailed chronicle than a piece of fiction.