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Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Newlyweds: Meditations on Marriage

Amina lives in a Bangladesh. George lives in Rochester, New York. They're just a couple of star-crossed lovers who meet on EuroAsia.com and get married. Nell Freudenberger's new novel The Newlyweds is the quintessential 21st century, meeting-online-across-continents love story.

Except there's not much real love here. Nerdy mid-30s George wants a family. Ambitious late-20s Amina wants to escape Bangladesh for more opportunity. So their partnership is one of mutual benefit. But this is something they never discuss, after a year of email, an in-person visit, and then Amina's move to the U.S. (that's not a spoiler — that all happens early in the novel). Instead, the two pretend like they have traditional fairy-tale marriage, based on the rock solid foundation of love, devotion and trust.

The conflict of the novel comes when that trust goes away. George has been hiding a secret. Will the marriage survive?

So the main theme of The Newlyweds is the difficulties associated with cross-cultural marriage. Georgia and Amina's is the primary example, but we also learn about George's cousin Kim, who had a once-rocky marriage with an Indian guy name Ashok. And one of Amina's childhood friends, Nasir, originally a possible match for Amina herself, is now looking for a wife — but will his be an arranged marriage in Bangladeshi tradition or will he marry for love?

In addition to the meditation on marriage, Freudenberger gives us the "conflicted immigrant" theme, as well. Is Amina remaining true to her Bangladeshi roots by availing herself of American conveniences?
"She struggled to find some connection between the girl she so often imagined at home in her parents' apartment and this American wife, using the dishwasher and the washing machine, checking her email on the living room computer ... Sometimes she wondered whether the two girls would simply grow farther and farther apart, until one day they didn't even recognize each other."
So, what did I think? I've wavered back and forth on a near-daily basis between "Loved it" and "It was okay – kind of interesting, but unsatisfying." If that seems strange, you're right, it is. There were parts when I was rooting like crazy for George and Amina to work. There were parts I just didn't care. There were too-obvious-to-the-point-of-silly symbols (like the cardinal on cover — he makes an appearance in the book, too). But there was also some really stunning, insightful writing about the trials and tribulations of relationships. So 3 stars — maybe because it wasn't really my thing, but it's not by any stretch a bad novel and other readers may have more luck with it than I did.

7 comments:

  1. Interesting review. I have this one, and I really wanted to read it when it came out, but I keep not picking it up. I'm not sure why. There is something about it that just doesn't sound that appealing to me, and I'm kind of afraid that I'm just going to feel "meh."

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    1. It took me awhile to talk myself into it, too. I'm also not sure why. I guess maybe it's not really a story with a whole lot of flash. It's real good, down-to-earth fiction. But it's not going to blow you away.

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  2. It's a shame it was so patchy as I really enjoy books about the immigrant experience if they are well written. I like the premise though, truly a love story for our times! :P

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    1. I'd definitely be interested to hear what you think about it. The parts about Amina's experience in American were, to me, much more interesting than the parts about her life in Bangladesh.

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  3. I've still got this one on my wishlist but I may rethink buying it after reading your review. I think a part of me was hoping this would be like The Namesake, but it doesn't really sound like it will be. Either way, a part of me still wants to give it a shot! But I feel like I may be in for a let down. I guess I won't know until I try it...

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    1. You know, it kind of IS like The Namesake, but not nearly as "sharp," for lack of a better word. This is just more soft around the edges. What I wanted to say in the review, but didn't in fear of getting called a sexist on the internet for the 4,328th time: It's probably better joined by women, than by dudes. There, I said. Feels like a weight's been lifted. :)

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  4. I've had my eye on this for a while now but your review has me uncertain. There are just SO many books out this year that I want to read that I'm not sure I have the energy for one that falls in middling territory.

    I'd also like to point out, just for the record, that I, as a woman, have no problem being told that certain books will resonate more with women than men. That's just a fact, and anyone who says differently is selling something.

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