Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: The Newlyweds

I often come across things three times before I decide to pursue them, and The Newlyweds was one of those things. I first read about the book in an issue of Poets & Writers, thought it sounded interesting, and added the title to my ever-growing list of Books to Read. Then I came across it in the Strand last May, picked it up, but ultimately decided to buy Wild instead. And then, at the beginning of winter break, my friend Lucy said she had a book I might like, and would I want to borrow it? Not to ruin the suspense, but that book was - once again - The Newlyweds. Clearly, it was time. 

The Newlyweds is about 24 year old Amina, a woman from Bangladesh, who meets George, a 34 year old man from America, on a dating website. They spend nearly a year exchanging emails, he comes to visit, and they decide to get married. It's not exactly love, but Amina and her parents have always dreamed of living in America and, for people without many other options, this seems like the best - and perhaps only - way to get there. But let me be clear - Amina is not simply looking for a Green card, and George is not looking for a mail order bride. They both long for the same things - stability, a family - and they both have high hopes for their union. Amina thinks of theirs as a marriage made the modern way, with the help of the Internet, rather than a village matchmaker. And this is a nice idea, except that it turns out George and Amina don't know each other at all, and have very different ideas about what "stability" and "family" mean. They don't confront these issues until months after the wedding, when Amina is already living in Rochester, New York, trying to navigate her new role as American Wife while figuring out how to best live her life. 

I finished this book a few weeks ago, and it's taken me a while to decide how I felt about it. I liked Amina and found George tolerable, if a little dull. I felt the ache of loneliness and the loss of identity that Amina experiences. I understood her drive to do right by her parents, to work hard, to be successful, even if success didn't make her particularly happy. I liked the ending, which I won't spoil. I liked how Freudenberger described both Rochester and Bangladesh in such striking and vivid detail. I like novels about relationships, and the compromises we make by entering into them, and this book deals with those issues in a nuanced and lovely way. 

I didn't like some of the plot twists - they felt cheap and obvious. And the symmetry between some of the decisions that Amina and George make was a little too neat (I won't elaborate, in case you haven't read the book and want to). Rereading this review as I write it, it seems obvious to me that the parts I didn't love were plot-related, and the parts I did love where character-related. Which makes sense - The Newlyweds is a character-driven book, in which most of the action is emotional and internal. Luckily, Amina is a character who can carry a book, even through a plot that wavers at times. 

Final verdict: a good read, a great character study, and an interesting look at what it means to be married. If you've read it, I'd love to know what you think!