'The Newlyweds': an American-Bangladeshi coupling
Novelist Nell Freudenberger's "The Newlyweds" tells the story of the marriage of George and Amina, an American-Bangladeshi odd couple. Freudenberger reads Wednesday, June 6, at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Nell FreudenbergerThe author of "The Newlyweds" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottabaybook.com).
The union at the heart of Nell Freudenberger's gentle new novel is not of the Cupid's arrow bliss the title evokes.
George and Amina's marriage, though not lacking in affection, is more of a leap of faith than most. He is a button-down American electrical engineer in Rochester, N.Y., with a prickly extended family. She is a dutiful, beloved only child and tutor in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They meet on a website designed for Western men and Asian women. Their motives reveal themselves slowly.
"The Newlyweds" (Alfred A. Knopf, 337 pp., $25.95) is about all sorts of complex relationships: between parents and children; with first loves; with the places we depart and those we adopt, and "the many selves" this fluidity creates.
Freudenberger ("The Dissident: A Novel," "Lucky Girls: Stories") does an especially lovely job creating Amina's worlds — her emotional terrain, her wonder and bewilderment adjusting to America, her life in Bangladesh. (In the novel's acknowledgments, the author, who lives in Brooklyn, thanks her Bangladeshi friends for their hospitality.)
Describing a tender memory of Amina's, the author captures a young woman's vulnerability: " ... When he'd touched her hair, it was as if all of the water in her body (the body, they had learned in Mr. Haq's science class, was 61.8 percent water) had turned to soda."
That Americans cherish independence above all else is a rude awakening for Amina, who misses her parents terribly. But she quickly adapts to the reality that "American English was different from the language she'd learned at Maple Leaf International in Dhaka. ... Americans always went to the bathroom, never the loo. They did not live in flats or stow anything in the boot of the car, and under no circumstances did they ever pop outside to smoke a fag."
"Newlyweds" really comes alive in scenes set in Bangladesh. In the countryside, paddy fields reveal "the saturated color of the rice shoots, bottle green, as if they had light inside them." A village house stands proudly, freshly painted "mustard with dark green shutters." Riding in a rickshaw in Dhaka, Amina revels in "the shouting and the bicycle bells, the smell of fried snacks from the roadside vendors, and the air that got inside her clothing as the driver pedaled expertly through the stalled traffic ... ."
External stressors, besides cultural differences, factor into George and Amina's life. They marry in 2005, with 9/11 casting a fresh shadow over immigration from largely Muslim countries such as Bangladesh. In 2008 comes the economic recession. And there's the matter of Amina and George's pasts, and what they truly harbor in their hearts.
But there's no doubt that resilient, determined Amina will be just fine, long after the honeymoon is over.
Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi is a Seattle Times desk editor.