Nell Freudenberger’s fiction inhabits the spaces between strangers and their strange lands, from the Chinese visiting artist of The Dissident to the adventuresome and lonely women in her breakout story collection, Lucky Girls. In her new novel, The Newlyweds, Freudenberger, who was named as one of the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 in 2010, forces two cultures to cohabit in capturing the uncertain early years of a cross-cultural marriage.
The Newlyweds is a study in miniature of how a couple’s unfulfilled expectations can bubble up and separate them over time, told from the perspective of Amine, a Bangladeshi woman bound for Rochester, New York and the husband she found online. Granted, nothing about Amina and George’s relationship is conventional, from their initial emails supervised by her mother to their 10-day courtship with a ring but no proposal, but they commit to a shared vision of a calm American suburban life, complete with a spacious house and the college degree Amina never could have afforded on her own. Still, Amina’s plan to bring her parents to the U.S. reveals how little she and George (who opposes it) share as they imagine their years together, as she’s caught between his distant, secretive family and her entangled, fatalistic relatives, who hope she can help them too.
No malleable mail-order bride, Amina retains the uncompromising edge that prompted her to look for an American husband in the first place, a trait that causes friction with her fiancé almost as soon as she lands. (George’s own motives are fuzzier; his platitudes about wanting a more “practical” woman are one of the few chunks of backstory that doesn’t feel gratuitous in Freudenberger’s hurry to fill out all the details of their world.) Giving Amina her own obligations doesn’t erase the power differential between her and her new husband, but it highlights how, much as she struggles to assimilate, she carries that expectation of what a “good” Bangladeshi wife must do in her American marriage.
In spite of the artificiality of George and Amina’s courtship, there’s a surprising sweetness to it, as Freudenberger captures their acquaintance and the small discoveries that mark their isolated lives in Rochester. The Newlyweds sensitively explores the extent to which both of them chafe against the roles they have chosen without wanting to go back to their old selves: She separates George and Amina as the latter goes back to Bangladesh to help her parents, and captures suspense in an Austenian quandary of whether, culturally or emotionally, they will be able to reconcile. As Amina says to George, meaning to reassure him about his place in her life, but accidentally eliciting a laugh: “At first we were puzzle pieces. Now we’re the puzzle.”