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Nell Freudenberger: Lucky Girls


Lucky Girls

Author: Nell Freudenberger
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

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In "The Orphan," the second story in Nell Freudenberger's debut collection Lucky Girls, a divorcing New York mother receives a tearful phone call from a daughter working in Bangkok. The daughter can barely breathe as she tells her mother that her Thai boyfriend hit and raped her. Frantic hours pass before a follow-up call dismisses the rape as a "misunderstanding... a cultural thing, actually." Clearly, some crucial element has not just gotten lost in translation, but also been garbled and perverted. With Lucky Girls, Freudenberger takes up residence in the spaces that divide people, sometimes by culture, sometimes by generation, and sometimes both. Freudenberger has worked as an English teacher in both India and Thailand, and she uses her firsthand experience, with all its confusions and revelations, to great effect here. The American lover of an older, married, recently deceased Indian man, the protagonist of "Lucky Girls" has to navigate through the consequences of breaking with local mores just to maintain a foothold on her own life. In the process, she earns the grudging respect of her beloved's mother while recognizing how her own story fits into a well-established pattern. Freudenberger's subjects make discoveries as they travel abroad, but just as often, they discover well-traveled paths. "The Tutor" hinges on a flare of love between an Indian tutor and an American high-school girl who's having trouble writing a college-entrance essay and planning vaguely to dispense with her virginity. What follows is predictable in form, but not content: The two find a sudden unexpected connection to each other and to the world around them. A different kind of older-man/younger-woman relationship troubles "Letter From The Last Bastion," which brings Freudenberger's command of detailed settings to the home front as a 17-year-old composes an open letter shedding light on the life of an acclaimed Vietnam War veteran turned author. Divided between small-town America and the bloody outskirts of the war, it reveals the soul-snaring perils of both locations. When The New Yorker first published Freudenberger at the age of 26, she attracted both admiration and skepticism. A collection with a remarkable command of delicate psychologies, Lucky Girls should bring her more of the former while putting the latter to rest.