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Book Review: The Newlyweds, by Nell Freudenberger

The Newlyweds“It was possible to change your own destiny, but you had to be vigilant and you could never look back.”

In this novel, billed as an examination of the complexities of modern love and marriage, Amina Mazid, a Bangladeshi woman, moves to Rochester, NY to get married to George Stillman, the American businessman she met online. Adjusting to life in her new home (and country) acts as a catalyst for Amina to examine her life choices and the meaning of home.

The Newlyweds is a charming, breezy read that is more intelligent than it may appear to be on its surface. To call it a romantic comedy might sell a lot of copies, but it would do a disservice to what a clever, carefully constructed story it is. It’s actually more in the vein of a traditional comedy of manners, just set in the modern era. I have heard Freudenberger’s writing compared to Jane Austen’s, and there’s a bit of truth to it. Like Austen, Freudenberger is capable of embedding some pretty sharp social commentary into her story–so subtly that you almost miss it. Unlike Austen, however, she lacks both the wit and the endearing characters that have made novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility perennial classics.

You see, I enjoyed The Newlyweds. I’d recommend it. I think that Freudenberger’s assertion that the world is not nearly as globalized or sophisticated as we believe it to be is pretty bloody brilliant. But the details of the story are already fading from my memory. By the end of the year it’s likely I’ll have forgotten all about it. I can imagine myself flipping through some “Best of 2012” articles come December, spotting it, and thinking to myself “Oh right. That book!”

A little more wit would have gone a long way, but I think it really comes down to the characters. George’s family is full of dull stock characters. George himself is a rather limited, officious prig (definitely no Mr. Darcy–an unfair comparison in the best of circumstances, but no less apt I think). Perhaps that’s Freudenberger’s commentary on what modern Americans are actually like (significantly, the member of George’s family that has the most depth is the one that is fascinated with Amina’s cultural background to the point of obsession), but this insight doesn’t make the novel any more interesting. That Americans are self-involved and self-important isn’t exactly a revelatory observation (that Amina and her family are just as self-involved makes a more poignant dig at the modern world, but this is one of those super-subtle inferences Freudenberger employs). Amina and her family are much more vibrant and colorful, but not particularly likable either.

The Newlyweds is very much about the modern state of marriage, but it would be inaccurate to call it a love story. Love has very little to do with the proceedings, in the end. In fact, it’s actually pretty cynical about love, given that it doesn’t factor into the story at all. There’s a dash of passion, but even that is notably lacking between our main couple. George and Amina’s union represents more of a marriage-of-convenience than anything else. It got him a chance at the family he so desired, and it got her to America.

Given all its flaws, I’d still recommend The Newlyweds (it would be particularly good as a summer read, I think). I’m still curious to check out Freudenberger’s other books. But if I’m being completely honest, I’m disappointingly “meh” about the experience I had with this one.

Grade: B

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This entry was posted on June 2, 2012 by in Book Review and tagged , , .
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