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Marriage in the 21st Century: A Review of Nell Freudenberger's The Newlyweds

by Jessie Leon

            Nell Freudenberger’s third book The Newlyweds, set to be published in May by Knopf, could be the slap in the face that the critics who have deemed her as too attractive, too young, and too lucky, need.  After Freudenberger’s story Lucky Girls was published in The New Yorker when she was just twenty-six years old, her much anticipated collection of stories with the same name was published soon thereafter.  Winning the PEN/Malamud award for short fiction and publishing a second book, The Dissident, cemented her position as a talent to be watched.  While the media seemed to focus in on her beauty and “luck” (she was working as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker when they published her story) The Newlyweds proves that Freudenberger does, indeed, live up to her title as one of The New Yorkers “20 Under 40” best writers. 

             Her third novel is honest, funny and nuanced in a way that mimics the realities of life.  Telling the story of Amina Mazid, a twenty-four year old Bangladeshi who leaves her home and parents to marry George Stillman, an unromantic thirty-four year old electrical engineer, whom she met off the website, Freudenberger delves into the uncomfortable but exciting predicament that is George and Amina’s first year of marriage.  From finding a job to struggling with understanding George’s family members and neighbors, Amina’s quest to fit in feels real; you’re even rooting for her as you read, empathizing with the awkwardness of their honeymoon and the learning curve that comes with trying to fit into American society.  At one point she goes shopping for a mattress with George only to find that he expects her to lie on the bed with him in front of everyone in the store, an act that would be considered sinful in her culture.

            Freudenberger’s deft writing seamlessly carries the story from the first few months of their marriage to the end of the first year and thereafter.   You watch Amina change, mature, and even take the reins of her marriage, putting her foot down with George, who appears naïve, with little understanding or appreciation for other cultures, though not mean-spirited, just ignorant, as he is only familiar with the American Amina, not the Bangladeshi one, whom Amina herself references in third person.  “In a way, George had created her American self, and so it made sense that it was the only one he would see,” thinks Amina.

            Freudenberger speaks to the difficulties of moving to a foreign country beautifully.  She was inspired to write the story after meeting a young woman from Bangladesh on an airplane a few years ago.  She says the woman was coming to America to marry a man whom she’d met off the Internet.  “The little I learned about her on that flight suggested that she had come from an ordinary, middle-class Muslim family—a family in which a decision like hers would be almost unthinkable.  I was curious to know what in a person’s makeup might lead her to change her life in such a radically unconventional way,” Fredenberger told The New Yorker.

            The Newlyweds is a thoughtful exploration of that curiosity: the quest for learning and understanding a new language, the sacrifices made for love, and secrets held by families that both shake and shape the outcome of people’s lives.  The book asks questions about all of these topics.  Eventually, Amina must journey back home and interact as she once did in her old life, meet her old self again, if there can be such a distinction made between the Bangladeshi and the American Amina: “Her own promises and responsibilities were distant and indistinct, as if they belonged to a different person.  At the same time she felt as if she’d entered herself again, the left-behind self who’d been waiting for her for so long.”

            Freudenberger manages to create characters that truly learn, change and grow throughout the book, not forcefully and at the will of the author, but organically and in such a way that only speaks to her brilliance as a writer.  The relationships in the book feel real.  Hard decisions are made by the characters. Mistakes are made.  Life ensues, and by the end, you are wishing for another chapter—a further glimpse into Amina’s life.  What is the basis of a happy marriage?  Is it love, practicality, a common culture, or perhaps something else entirely?

             For the critics who have deemed Freudenberger as lucky or beautiful (though I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, and I wonder if that would be an obstacle for a male writer to overcome), The Newlyweds speaks for itself.  Freudenberger’s insight into this couple’s lives feels like someone opening the door to let you peak into a bit of magic.  It’s a true triumph of a book.

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