three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
59-July-Aug-2012
user_rating: 
0

748330.pngIn 2001, while working as an editorial assistant at the New Yorker, Nell Freudenberger had her first story published in the magazine. Soon after, Granta named her one of the Best Young American Novelists. The Newlyweds, which grew out of a story, "An Arranged Marriage," which appeared in the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 fiction issue in 2010, is her third book, after Lucky Girls (2003) and The Dissident (2006).

The Story: At age 24, Amina Mazid leaves her family in Bangladesh and moves to Rochester, New York, to marry George Stillman. But this is no traditional arranged marriage; instead, it's one for the 21st century: conducted online. For Amina, George represents opportunities her home country can't offer; for George, Amina is the earnest, straightforward, and practical wife he desires. Yet, despite their best intentions, each still harbors secret romantic entanglements that impede their own developing relationship. When Amina returns to Bangladesh in the hopes of bringing her parents back to Rochester with her, the couple struggles to determine whether their pasts will destroy their fragile happiness‚ or will make it stronger.
Knopf. 352 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307268846

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] rich, wise, bighearted novel. Freudenberger moves gracefully between South Asian fantasies of American life and the realities of bone-cold, snow-prone upstate New York‚ and turns the coming together of newlyweds Amina and George into a readers's banquet." Lisa Schwarzbaum

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]his is the central question of The Newlyweds: Can and will Amina reconcile her past self with her future self? Her story is one of the human heart in conflict with itself, which, according to William Faulkner, is the central conflict of all great art." Natalie Serber

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What all feels a bit like a paint-by-numbers exercise, however, gradually opens out into a genuinely moving story about a woman trying to negotiate two cultures, balancing her parents's expectations with her own aspirations, her ambition and cynical practicality with deeper, more romantic yearnings. Writing about a foreign country seems to kick Ms. Freudenberger's gift for observation into high gear, and she does a visceral job of conjuring the place where Amina grew up." Michiko Kakutani

NYTimes Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Freudenberger brings impressive attributes to bear in her attempt to achieve [truthlikeness]: a powerful sense of empathy, of being able to imagine what it is to be someone else, to feel what someone else feels; an effective but unfussy writing style that avoids drawing attention to itself; and an international sensibility. At moments the truthlikeness of The Newlyweds falters, when its perspectives seem to belong more properly to its author than to Amina." Mohsin Hamid

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"She's that rare artist who speaks fluently from many different cultural perspectives, without preciousness or undue caution. Freudenberger knows Amina as well as Jane Austen knows Emma, and despite its globe-spanning set changes, The Newlyweds offers a reading experience redolent of Janeite charms: gentle touches of social satire, subtly drawn characters and dialogue that expresses far more than its polite surface." Ron Charles

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 of 5 Stars
"The novel seems most sure of itself in the beginning chapters, when it takes place in Rochester. Over far too many pages, Ms. Freudenberger gets absorbed in a Bangladesh she depicts as chaotic to the point of violence." Kaitlynn Riely

Houston Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"It's a fascinating idea for a novel, yet its success depends on compelling characterizations of Amina and George. Trying to handle the problems that come up in a marriage sometimes make for good reading, but neither Amina nor George are very interesting characters." Elizabeth Bennett

Critical Summary

Nell Freudenberg found inspiration for The Newlyweds when, in a chance plane encounter, she met a Bangladeshi woman (now a friend) who had met her American husband on the Internet. About family ties, self-discovery, assimilation, prejudice, and forgiveness, the novel aptly captures the contradictions, tensions, and misunderstandings between South Asian and American culture, between past and present, and between husband and wife. There's no doubt that Freudenberg's immediate, evocative prose (particularly the Bangladeshi scenes) captivated most reviewers. But a few wondered whether the plot has a bit of a "paint-by-numbers" feel (New York Times) or if Freudenberg offers scant insight into her characters's inner lives. Still, The Newlyweds is a compelling look at the difficulties of defining cultural identity‚ and romantic love‚ from a writer to watch.