A powerful, funny, richly observed tour de force by one of America’s most acclaimed young writers: a story of love and marriage, secrets and betrayals, that takes us from the backyards of America to the back alleys and villages of Bangladesh.
In The Newlyweds, we follow the story of Amina Mazid, who at age twenty-four moves from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York, for love. A hundred years ago, Amina would have been called a mail-order bride. But this is an arranged marriage for the twenty-first century: Amina is wooed by—and woos—George Stillman online.
For Amina, George offers a chance for a new life and a different kind of happiness than she might find back home. For George, Amina is a woman who doesn’t play games. But each of them is hiding something: someone from the past they thought they could leave behind. It is only when they put an ocean between them—and Amina returns to Bangladesh—that she and George find out if their secrets will tear them apart, or if they can build a future together.
The Newlyweds is a surprising, suspenseful story about the exhilarations—and real-life complications—of getting, and staying, married. It stretches across continents, generations, and plains of emotion. What has always set Nell Freudenberger apart is the sly, gimlet eye she turns on collisions of all kinds—sexual, cultural, familial. With The Newlyweds, she has found her perfect subject for that vision, and characters to match. She reveals Amina’s heart and mind, capturing both her new American reality and the home she cannot forget, with seamless authenticity, empathy, and grace. At once revelatory and affecting, The Newlyweds is a stunning achievement.
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Nell Freudenberger is the author of the novel The Dissident and the story collection Lucky Girls, winner of the PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; both books were New York Times Book Review Notables. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship from the New York Public Library, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40.” She lives in Brooklyn with her family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
She hadn’t heard the mailman, but Amina decided to go out and check. Just in case. If anyone saw her, they would know that there was someone in the house now during the day while George was at work. They would watch Amina hurrying coatless to the mailbox, still wearing her bedroom slippers, and would conclude that this was her home. She had come to stay.
The mailbox was new. She had ordered it herself with George’s credit card, from mailboxes.com, and she had not chosen the cheapest one. George had said that they needed something sturdy, and so Amina had turned off the Deshi part of her brain and ordered the heavy-duty rural model, in glossy black, for $90. She had not done the conversion into taka, and when it arrived, wrapped in plastic, surrounded by Styrofoam chips, and carefully tucked into its corrugated cardboard box—a box that most Americans would simply throw away but that Amina could not help storing in the basement, in a growing pile behind George’s Bowflex—she had taken pleasure in its size and solidity. She showed George the detachable red flag that you could move up or down to indicate whether you had letters for collection.
“That wasn’t even in the picture,” she told him. “It just came with it, free.”
The old mailbox had been bashed in by thugs. The first time had been right after Amina arrived from Bangladesh, one Thursday night in March. George had left for work on Friday morning, but he hadn’t gotten even as far as his car when he came back through the kitchen door, uncharacteristically furious.
“Goddamn thugs. Potheads. Smoking weed and destroying private property. And the police don’t do a fucking thing.”
“Thugs are here? In Pittsford?” She couldn’t understand it, and that made him angrier.
“Thugs! Vandals. Hooligans—whatever you want to call them. Uneducated pieces of human garbage.” Then he went down to the basement to get his tools, because you had to take the mailbox off its post and repair the damage right away. If the thugs saw that you hadn’t fixed it, that was an invitation.
The flag was still raised, and when she double-checked, sticking her hand all the way into its black depths, there was only the stack of bills George had left on his way to work. The thugs did not actually steal the mail, and so her green card, which was supposed to arrive this month, would have been safe even if she could have forgotten to check. “Thugs” had a different meaning in America, and that was why she’d been confused. George had been talking about kids, troublemakers from East Rochester High, while Amina had been thinking of dacoits: bandits who haunted the highways and made it unsafe to take the bus. She had lived in Rochester six months now—long enough to know that there were no bandits on Pittsford roads at night.
American English was different from the language she’d learned at Maple Leaf International in Dhaka, but she was lucky because George corrected her and kept her from making embarrassing mistakes. 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.
Maple Leaf was where she first learned to use the computer, and the computer was how she met George, a thirty-four-year-old SWM who was looking for a wife. George had explained to her that he had always wanted to get married. He had dated women in Rochester, but often found them silly, and had such a strong aversion to perfume that he couldn’t sit across the table from a woman who was wearing it. George’s cousin Kim had called him “picky,” and had suggested that he might have better luck on the Internet, where he could clarify his requirements from the beginning.
George told Amina that he had been waiting for a special connection. He was a romantic, and he didn’t want to compromise on just anyone. It wasn’t until his colleague Ed told him that he’d met his wife, Min, on AsianEuro.com that he had thought of trying that particular site. When he had received the first e-mail from Amina, he said that he’d “had a feeling.” When Amina asked what had given him the feeling, he said that she was “straightforward” and that she did not play games, unlike some women he knew. Which women were those, she had asked, but George said he was talking about women he’d known a long time ago, when he was in college.
She hadn’t been testing him: she had really wanted to know, only because her own experience had been so different. She had been contacted by several men before George, and each time she’d wondered if this was the person she would marry. Once she and George had started e-mailing each other exclusively, she had wondered the same thing about him, and she’d continued wondering even after he booked the flight to Dhaka in order to meet her. She had wondered that first night when he ate with her parents at the wobbly table covered by the plasticized map of the world—which her father discreetly steadied by placing his elbow somewhere in the neighborhood of Sudan—and during the agonizing hours they had spent in the homes of their Dhaka friends and relatives, talking to each other in English while everyone sat around them and watched. It wasn’t until she was actually on the plane to Washington, D.C., wearing the University of Rochester sweatshirt he’d given her, that she had finally become convinced it was going to happen.
It was the first week of September, but the leaves were already starting to turn yellow. George said that the fall was coming early, making up for the fact that last spring had been unusually warm: a gift to Amina from the year 2005—her first in America. By the time she arrived in March most of the snow was gone, and so she had not yet experienced a real Rochester winter.
In those first weeks she had been pleased to notice that her husband had a large collection of books: biographies (Abraham Lincoln, Anne Frank, Cary Grant, Mary Queen of Scots, John Lennon, and Napoléon) as well as classic novels by Charles Dickens, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, and Jane Austen. George told Amina that he was a reader but that he couldn’t understand people who waded through all of 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.
George did have some books from his childhood, when he’d been interested in fantasy novels, especially retellings of the Arthurian legend and anything to do with dragons. There was also a book his mother had given him, 1001 Facts for Kids, which he claimed had “basically got him through the stupidity of elementary school.” In high school he had put away the 1001 Facts in favor of a game called Dungeons & Dragons, but there were now websites that served the same purpose, and George retained a storehouse of interesting tidbits that he periodically related to Amina.
“Did you know that there is an actual society made up of people who believe the earth is flat?”
“Did you know that one out of twenty people has an extra rib?”
“Did you know that most lipstick contains fish scales?”
For several weeks Amina had answered “No” to each of these questions, until she gradually understood that this was another colloquialism—perhaps more typical of her new husband than of the English language—simply a way of introducing a new subject that did not demand an actual response.
“Did you know that seventy percent of men and sixty percent of women admit to having been unfaithful to their spouse, but that eighty percent of men say they would marry the same woman if they had the chance to live their lives over again?”
“What do the women say?” Amina had asked, but George’s website hadn’t cited that statistic.
George had said that they could use the money he’d been “saving for a rainy day” for her to begin studying at Monroe Community College next year, and as soon as her green card arrived, Amina planned to start looking for a job. She wanted to contribute to the cost of her education, even if it was just a small amount. George supported the idea of her continuing her studies, but only once she had a specific goal in mind. It wasn’t the degree that counted but what you did with it; he believed that too many Americans wasted time and money on college simply for the sake of a fancy piece of paper. And so Amina told him that she’d always dreamed of becoming a real teacher. This was not untrue, in the sense that she had hoped her tutoring jobs at home might one day lead to a more sustained and distinguished kind of work. What she didn’t mention to George was how important the U.S. college degree would be to everyone she knew at home—a tangible symbol of what she had accomplished halfway across the world.
She was standing at the sink, chopping eggplant for dinner, when she saw their neighbor Annie Snyder coming up Skytop Lane, pushing an infant in a stroller and talking to her little boy, Lawson, who was pedaling a low plastic bike. The garish colors and balloon-like shapes of that toy reminded Amina of a commercial she had seen on TV soon after she’d arrived in Rochester, in which real people were eating breakfast in a cartoon house. Annie had introduced herself when Amina had moved in and invited her out for coffee. Then she’d asked if Amina had any babysitting experience, because she was always looking for someone to watch the kids for an hour or two while she did the shopping or went to the gym.
She asks that because you’re from someplace else, George had said. She sees brown skin and all she can think of is housecleaning or babysitting. He told her she was welcome to go to Starbucks with Annie, but under no circumstances was she to take care of Annie’s children, even for an hour. Amina was desperate to find a job, but secretly she was glad of George’s prohibition. American babies made her nervous, the way they traveled in their padded strollers, wrapped up in blankets like precious goods from UPS.
She had never worried about motherhood before, since she’d always known she would have her own mother to help her. When she and George had become serious, Amina and her parents had decided that she would do everything she could to bring them to America with her. Only once they’d arrived did she want to have her first child. They’d talked their plan through again and again at home, researching the green card and citizenship requirements—determining that if all went well, it would be three years from the time she arrived before her parents could hope to join her. Just before she left, her cousin Ghaniyah had shown her an article in Femina called “After the Honeymoon,” which said that a couple remained newlyweds for a year and a day after marriage. In her case, Amina thought, the newlywed period would last three times that long, because she wouldn’t feel truly settled until her parents had arrived.
In spite of all the preparation, there was something surprising about actually finding herself in Rochester, waiting for a green card in the mail. The sight of Annie squatting down and retrieving something from the netting underneath the stroller reminded her that she had been here six months already and had not yet found an opportunity to discuss her thoughts about children or her parents’ emigration with George.
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