Some time back I enjoyed listening to A Cup of Friendship, Deborah Rodriguez’ novel centered on a coffee shop in Kabul, since reissued as The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul.
Part of the pleasure stemmed from the good story, well presented, but another important factor was the glimpse into life in a world about which I know little.
Nell Freudenberger’s novel The Newlyweds offers similar attractions. It’s a good story, well told, and it provides a fascinating picture of life in today’s Bangladesh.
By Linda C. Brinson
THE NEWLYWEDS. By Nell Freudenberger. 11 compact discs 13 hours. Read by Mozhan Marno. Random House Audio. $40. Also available in print from Knopf.
When Amina Mazid was growing up in Bangladesh, her father always seemed to be charging off after one scheme or another, most of which did not end well. Amina, an only child, is intelligent and ambitious. She wants a better life for herself – and by extension, for her parents in their later years – than her family’s circumstances can provide. Her mother supports her ambitions emotionally and practically.
Even though the family can’t afford the courses that lead to higher education, Amina’s mother helps her study on her own. Amina secures work as a tutor and learns the ins and outs of the Internet. And so it is that she begins to browse an Asian version of a dating website. There, she corresponds with George Stillman, a serious young American man who thinks too many young women in the United States are frivolous and insincere.
Slowly, online romance blossoms, and in time George comes to Bangladesh to meet Amina and her parents. When he leaves, Amina has a big American engagement ring and plans to move to Rochester, N.Y., to marry George.
At age 24, she sets off to this unknown world and a man she barely knows. Though she will stay at George’s house as soon as she arrives, she has every intention of obeying her mother and her religion. George has agreed to convert to Islam, and Amina plans to have a proper Muslim wedding before becoming his wife.
Good intentions don’t always survive a collision with reality, however. Married at city hall before a few relatives and friends, George and Amina set about building their life together. Adjusting to married life can be a challenge for anyone, but George and Amina face the added complications of sometimes-extreme cultural and language differences. Amina’s mastery of English did not include idioms and nuances.
Some of the problems that develop are humorous; others are more serious.
Amina is an engaging character, spunky and hard working, bound by the rules and ways of Bangladesh but also adapting to society in her new homeland. Sometimes she feels as though she is two people. We don’t know George as well as we know Amina, but he’s basically a decent, kind person, if a bit dull.
Amina’s plan has always been to bring her parents to the United States as soon as she gains her citizenship and saves some money. She and George want a family, but she can’t imagine having a baby without her mother to help. One of her first serious shocks is learning that American couples don’t usually share their homes with their parents.
And life intervenes in various ways – the recession, jobs, developments back in Bangladesh. It does not help that Amina and George, struggling with newlywed adjustments, both have kept secrets about people in their past.
When Amina eventually heads to Bangladesh to fetch her parents, the trip turns into much more of an adventure than she or George had anticipated.
This book is often funny and always touching. It gives a fascinating look at life in contemporary Bangladesh with the added benefit of many perceptive insights into life in the United States. And it makes the point that a successful marriage is an endeavor that transcends borders and cultures.
Mozhan Marno does a fine job of reading the book, bringing various characters vividly to life.
There was a point at which I though Nell Freudenberger was going to take the easy way out and write a predictable ending. Instead, she left me hungry to know more about what happens after the book ends. When you’re sad to have reached the end of a novel, reluctant to have the curtains drawn on someone else’s life, you know that novel was worth the read or the listen.