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My New American Life: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 26, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
The story of a good-hearted immigrant doubles as a snapshot of America during Bush II's second term in Prose's uneven latest. Lula is a 26-year-old Albanian working an undemanding au pair gig in New Jersey. Her employer, Stanley, is a forlorn Wall Street exec recently abandoned by his mentally disturbed wife. He asks only that Lula see to the simple needs of his son, Zeke, a disaffected high school senior. Soon, Stanley and one of his friends, a high-profile immigration lawyer, are taken with the tale-telling, mildly exotic Lula (who speaks English flawlessly) and get to work on securing her citizenship. Lula's gig is cushy if dull, a condition relieved when three Albanian criminals, led by the charming Alvo, arrive at Stanley's house with a quiet demand that Lula harbor a (Chekhovian) gun for them. Prose seeks to show America through the fresh eyes of an outsider with a deeply ingrained, comic pessimism born of life under dictatorship, yet also capable of exuberant optimism, and the results, like Lula, are agreeable enough but not terribly profound. (May)
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*Starred Review* Whenever Lula feels pressure from Don, her heroic immigration lawyer; or Mister Stanley, her melancholy employer; or Zeke, his moody teenage son; she offers a wry observation about how brutal life is in her native Albania to ensure their sympathy. She also needs to remind herself to be grateful for living legally in the U.S., in spite of how lonely and bored she is working as a nanny in New Jersey. Lula doesn�t do much, since Zeke is old enough to be applying to college, but his father doesn�t want him home alone after his imbalanced mother�s abrupt disappearance. Between trips to Guant�namo, Don encourages Lula to write a memoir titled My New American Life, a clever setup that allows Prose great freedom in crafting Lula�s comically ironic and heartbreakingly guileless voice. In deftly choreographed scenes of caustic hilarity, from awkward meals to fumbled romance, Prose articulates both Lula�s hopefulness and homesickness as she contends with Mister Stanley and Zeke�s despair, Don�s righteous indignation, and the frightening demands of three Albanian guys who show up in a black Lexus SUV. Prose is dazzling in her sixteenth book of spiky fiction, a fast-flowing, bittersweet, brilliantly satirical immigrant story that subtly embodies the cultural complexity and political horrors of the Balkans and Bush-Cheney America. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Best-selling Prose continues to ascend in popularity and acclaim, having just been honored with the prestigious Washington University International Humanities Medal. --Donna Seaman
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There are some touching characters in the book, particularly Lula herself and Zeke, the teenaged boy. But most of the rest of the people in the book are either cardboard figures, crazy people, or sad sacks. Similarly, there are a good many truly funny apercus about American culture in the age of Homeland Security, but there is little sustained humor. I thought about abandoning the book midway, but I decided I didn't want to leave Lula in New Jersey.
The story is extremely well written and I feel flows along at a good pace. I loved not knowing exactly where the story would go due to Lula's three "cousins." So much could have happened, but it was interesting to me that the author used this chiefly to shine the light on Lula's sponsor/employer's American dream destruction. I enjoyed the characters in the book and found them all to be realistic. Haven't we all known a Mister Stanley? And Zeke is a great portrayal of an average American kid raised with money and lots of material stuff. I found it fascinating how those from other countries view Americans and American living. I feel I have a much better understanding of foreign views and truly get why the seek out others from their own countries. Americans give too much lip service to being a melting pot, while pretty much shutting out those from other cultures unless it's to give them work.
What I loved best of all is that Lula gives herself the right to reach out for true freedom at the end. I don't want to say too much more so as not to spoil this for others, but I loved that while she appreciated Mister Stanley's help and adored Zeke, she knew she needed to move forward with her life. I can just see that she will live out her own version of the American Dream no matter what.
I loved My New American Life and would recommend it to anyone looking for a great story, especially readers who are interested in learning about other cultures along the way. It would make a great book club read as it brings up many issues that beg to be discussed. Overall, good, satisfying, humorous and thought-provoking read!