Amina Mazid is twenty-four and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The only daughter of an inconstantly providing father, Amina supports her family by tutoring. Still, Amina’s marriage matches are limited. Using the computers in the homes of her wealthy clients, enterprising Amina creates a profile on AsianEuro.com.
Soon Amina meets George, who is drawn to her practical smarts (her profile photo is the Bangladesh national flag) and her straightforwardness; she doesn’t “play games” like the American women he’s known.
The Newlyweds is the third book of fiction by the celebrated Nell Freudenberger. Named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and among The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” Freudenberger is the author of Lucky Girls, a collection of stories, and the novel The Dissident. Though nineteenth-century in its four-part structure, intricate plot, and attention to manners and marriage, The Newlyweds is a thoroughly modern drama that takes a hard, close look at ordinary people figuring unconventional answers to the timeless problems of love and money.
After George travels to Dhaka and the two lovebirds approve each other, Amina immigrates to Rochester, New York, where George owns a house near his small extended family and works as an electrical engineer. Amina finds employment first in a bookstore and later at Starbucks. At night, she goes to school. Amina excels at math and struggles to write her English essays, even though her conversational English is fluid and she shows little interest in math beyond calculating the sum needed to support her parents when they arrive in the United States.
Though Amina is extremely sheltered by American standards—until moving in with George she’d shared a bed with her mother, who read and participated in every scrap of Amina’s email courtship—she is an astute observer, almost clinical in her clear-eyed perceptions. About sex, experienced from soup to nuts for the first time on her third night in America:
She was disappointed to learn how unpleasant it was, how unlike that kiss in the bathroom, which had given her the same feeling between her legs that she sometimes got watching actors kiss on television. It didn’t hurt as much as her cousin Micki had said it would, but it was hot with George on top of her, and she didn’t like the way he looked when he closed his eyes—as if he were in pain somewhere very far away.
As easily as she masters the Rochester bus system, Amina deflects ignorance about her home country and religion, such as when George’s Aunt Cathy asks if Amina doesn’t eat pork because she’s allergic or because the meat is “dirty over there.”
Amina works all day and cooks and studies at night. She does not much play or dream. Her utter competence, coupled with her wholly earnest desires for friendship, romance, and comfortable surroundings, make her a little dull. Her and George’s husband-wife problems, though flawlessly realistic, often rely too heavily on the couple’s diverse backgrounds. Freudenberger nearly acknowledges this when Amina says, “She and George didn’t disagree very often, but when they did it was always because of ‘cultural differences’—a phrase so useful in forestalling arguments that she felt sorry for those couples who couldn’t employ it.” Amina and George want to have kids, but Amina is afraid of raising a child on her own and wants to wait until her mother is there—living with them—to help. George wants no such assistance.
Amina’s less virtuous and sincere qualities are revealed—or are developed, perhaps—through her relationship with George’s adopted cousin Kim, a beautiful blonde with a lithe yoga instructor’s body and a corresponding romantic past with a wealthy Bombay filmmaker. Kim is warm and affectionate and a confidante, but also dangerously self-absorbed, someone about whom Amina later says: “It was the drama of the scene she’d created that excited her.” When she is betrayed by Kim, Amina’s anger cuts satisfyingly through her previous naïveté and politeness.
Soon after George loses his job in the 2008 economic downturn, Amina becomes an American citizen and is granted a two-week leave from Starbucks to arrange her parents’ immigration to the States. Amina reenters her homeland as a woman who looks foreign enough to need her uncle’s driver to negotiate prices. She arrives bearing novel gifts and an American wedding band but no child in the womb from her unemployed husband.
Amina’s parents are delightfully overprotective and unworldly figures full of contradictions, and becoming a Deshi daughter again (and called by her nickname, Munni) after three years of independence is physically and psychologically jarring. Here Freudenberger’s broad vision, compassion, and penetrating insight are beautifully on display. There is this arresting description of a forgotten sense memory: “The smell of her Nanu was so familiar that she wondered she hadn’t once thought of it in America. Betel nut, rose water, cook smoke, and something harder to classify, the mineral tang of pond water dried on your skin.” Amina can’t help but see her grandmother’s village with binocular vision, discovering “she was looking at this field the way George would, as if she had a camera, and that was what made it (an ordinary field of dal, dull green under midafternoon clouds) so beautiful.” Amina’s painful readjustment to the places and people who used to comprise her entire world demonstrate just how radically she’s changed, and in a way The Newlyweds is a coming of age story charting a young woman’s emergence into an adult world of mixed motives and guilty passions.
Amina is not a novel thinker, however, and it is disappointing that she never articulates more precisely the charged strangeness of her personal evolution than “trying to make a bridge” between “past-Munni and present-Munni,” a formulation put to her by Nasir, an old crush and family friend. This limitation pairs unhappily with some overly explanatory sentences that drag down the novel’s otherwise swift prose.
Freudenberger’s significant accomplishment with The Newlyweds is to tell a story of remarkable events in the language of everyday life. She persuasively shows how the upheavals of leaving home to marry a near stranger in a foreign land consist of the slow, daily accumulation of new words and disorienting observations. Each fresh detail settles like layers of Rochester snow, sometimes softly, sometimes icy and unrelenting.