Readers looking for upstate New York – specifically, Pittsford – in the pages of Nell Freudenberger's new novel, "The Newlyweds," will be largely disappointed.
Though the novel of cross-cultural marriage is set in the tony Rochester suburb, we get very few solid signifiers that we are anyplace other than – well, Anyplace.
Sure, there are a few casual mentions of Wegmans. But the subdivision that the heroine, Amina, and her husband George live in – in an older-model split-level; do those still exist in sprawling, gentrified Pittsford? – is bland and nondescript. The places Amina applies to work include Starbucks and a chain Media Play-type store. We really get no sense that we are anywhere in particular, or that an upstate New York setting matters. Are we really that colorless? Let's hope not. Starbucks, sheesh.
However, if you can leave that aside, this newest novel by Brooklyn-based Freudenberger, previously the author of books including "The Dissident" and "Lucky Girls," works fine as a mannered tale of marriage – marriage sought and entered, enjoyed and despaired of, embraced and endured. A story of many marriages, in other words – even ones lacking the multicultural backdrop of "The Newlyweds."
The story is simple. Amina, a 24-year-old native of Bangladesh, meets her future husband George online. (Though lovely to look at, Amina does not use a photograph to lure men on Asian dating websites – a fact which intrigues George.)
George, older than Amina by 10 years, a sort-of-boring engineer with a Rochester company, has looked online for a woman to court and marry on foreign dating websites because he is, the reader is told, sick of playing around.
George wants to get married; he wants security and stability. (We have to take on faith the fact that 34, in George's world, makes him vaguely Old Maid-ish.
Suspending the flickers of disbelief that such a match might occur – Rochester and Buffalo do have foreign-born populations, for instance, from which George might have picked – the story unwinds from that premise in a well-paced, engaging fashion.
Amina, with her secret wishes to improve the lives of her parents, is a character easy to love.
George's true story, which Amina learns over time, makes him somewhat more interesting (though he is never an iota as lovable or intriguing as his brilliant, colorful wife).
The couple does well at first, in the glow of wedding happiness. But when real life intrudes – through the loss of a job, for instance, or the inability to conceive – cracks in the relationship between Amina and George begin to appear.
Freudenberger is best at describing, in subtle and poignant ways, the daily disconnects and cross-purpose conversations that can plague a married couple or close family members, no matter what the place of birth listed on their passports.
Amina talking to her mother about George's difficulties, or trying to make her Starbucks employment sound better than it is – beautiful, sad, true. Amina and George hedging around the very real problem of whether it is right for her parents to join them in America – again, real and pathos-laden. We feel for these people.
In those moments, and in the idea of marriage as a negotiation that is continuously renewed, rebartered and recharged, Freudenberger does a very good job.
Charity Vogel is a News reporter and manager of the News Book Club. ?
By Nell Freudenberger
337 pages, $26?