Nell Freudenberger doesn't bother to hide it: In her new novel, The Newlyweds (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95), she has absolutely chosen a side. The novel begins with a series of sketches about a new marriage. Amina, a 24-year-old woman from Bangladesh, is getting used to being married to a man in his 30s, named George, in her new home of Rochester, New York. Though the narration is omniscient, the narrator's sympathies lean in Amina's direction.
And in fact, George spends much of The Newlyweds offstage: Amina wonders how her husband will react to small pieces of personal news, or she considers ways in which he's different than what she thought an American husband would be. The portrait of George is sculpted from negative space. We learn about him indirectly through Amina's observations. "In the first few weeks she had been pleased to note that her husband had a large collection of... classic novels by Charles Dickens, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, and Jane Austen," the narration notes, adding:
George told Amina that he was a reader but that he couldn't understand people who waded through all the garbage they published these days, when it was possible to spend your whole life reading books the greatness of which had already been established.
This casual reportage illustrates George's very particular engineer mind-set, in which every topic on earth—arts and culture, home-buying, romance—comes with its own cheat code, a clear-cut value that renders every judgment a simple matter of mathematics. (The reason he signed up for the website where he met Amina is that he believed American women were too "silly" and more prone to game-playing than women from other countries.) Like a handwritten note tucked just out of view inside an open drawer, you want to crane your neck to understand a little more about George, but we're constrained by Amina's incomplete understanding of American men and her limited access to her husband's inner world.
You can tell right away why Freudenberger chose to lean her novel in the direction that she did: Amina is a brilliant literary creation, a gentle woman capable of great feats of quiet strength. Against her new husband's wishes, she plans to bring her parents to the United States, working an endless string of minimum-wage jobs and putting all the money into savings. She tries as hard as she can to love George, despite meeting him only once before agreeing to marry him.
Amina, it turns out, has a lot in common with Jane Austen's heroines, who refused to be fenced in by class differences and struggled with arranged marriages. Charlotte Brontë figures into the narrative, too—Jane Eyre "was the only book from [Amina's] O-level preparations with which she hadn't been able to part"—and The Newlyweds shares a similar romantic theme with those classics. We soon discover that Amina still has feelings for a young man back home named Nasir, who is taking care of her parents in her absence. Nasir is not perfect, either—in a series of e-mails, he disapproves of Amina's lax observation of her Muslim faith, and she demurely strains at his old-fashioned attempts to rope her into more traditional gender roles. Though it feels cheap to sum the novel up into a lurid will-she-or-won't-she construction, that tension is always there, often as distant to Amina's state of mind as her homeland.
And George has his own secrets, too. Amina adjusts to her new life and perfects her already very good English skills and starts to realize that she can have an impact on her surroundings. And then she realizes that she was perhaps treating George's desires with the same condescension that he was allowing for her intellect. Neither of the newlyweds seemed to realize that they failed to accept their partner as a whole human being.
This otherness is central to the plot. Every character is calling out to all the other characters through a series of cultural barriers, language barriers, barriers of intelligence and empathy, and differences of age and religion. Quietly, they all try to find commonality and make do with the connections they've already established. The Newlyweds struggles with an even greater otherness issue that is never addressed in the novel but is hinted at in the acknowledgements, which open:
I wouldn't have written this book if not for an extraordinary person I met six years ago on an airplane. Farah Deeba Munni opened her life to me, sharing her two homes, her sense of humor, and her memories, while giving me the freedom to make something entirely different from them.
Freudenberger goes on to thank people in Bangladesh for their hospitality and Farah's "husband, David Butler," for his "invaluable" help with "all things Rochesterian." It's not until the story has already drawn to a satisfying close and the acknowledgements galumph around the corner that the question of authorship becomes an issue: Did this story ethically belong to a white woman to fictionalize? For that matter, who the fuck am I—a white guy more experientially aligned with the distant husband who barely comes onstage for great swaths of the book? And for that matter, who the fuck are you, reading this now? Are we ever going to be able to figure any of this out?