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.
Excerpted from The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger. Copyright © 2012 by Nell Freudenberger. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“A big, complicated portrait of marriage, culture, family, and love. . . . Every minute I was away from this book I was longing to be back in the world she created.” —Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder
“Riveting. [The Newlyweds] succeeds based on Freudenberger’s uncanny ability to feel her way inside Amina’s skin.” —Los Angeles Times
“A delight, one of the easiest book recommendations of the year. . . . The cross-cultural tensions and romance so well drawn here recall the pleasures of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. . . . The Newlyweds offers a reading experience redolent of Janeite charms: gentle touches of social satire, subtly drawn characters and dialogue that expresses far more than its polite surface. . . . On either side of the world, making a marriage work demands casting off not just old lovers, but cherished fantasies about who we are. Whether these two alien lovebirds can—or should—do that is the question Freudenberger poses so beguilingly.” —The Washington Post
“A marvelous book.” —Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss
“The relationship between reader and writer is always something of an arranged marriage, in the sense that the reader enters a stranger’s sensibility, hoping for the best. Amina and George may have a complicated connection, but Newlyweds is an unambiguous success.” —Meg Wolitzer, More
“A genuinely moving story about a woman trying to negotiate two cultures, balancing her parents’ expectations with her own aspirations, her ambition and cynical practicality with deeper, more romantic yearnings. . . . Freudenberger demonstrates her assurance as a novelist and her knowledge of the complicated arithmetic of familial love, and the mathematics of romantic passion.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Parts of The Newlyweds might be about the learning curve faced by any freshly married couple. . . . Like writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Ha Jin, she deftly shows how strange the rituals of suburban America seem to an observant outsider.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Freudenberger’s central couple are more than well-crafted characters; they shimmer with believability and self-contradicting nuance. . . . Fluid and utterly confident.” —Time Out New York
“The Newlyweds is so much more than a ‘lost-in-translation’ romp: There are soulful depths to the sociology. . . . [A] luscious and intelligent novel that will stick with you. . . . Freudenberger keeps the wonderfulness coming.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“Freudenberger brings impressive attributes to bear in [The Newlyweds]: a powerful sense of empathy, of being able to imagine what it is to be someone else, to feel what someone else feels; an effective writing style that avoids drawing attention to itself; and an international sensibility, which allows her to write about places outside America not as peripheral—mere playgrounds for American characters—but as central to themselves.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Once in a while, you come across a novel with characters so rich and nuanced, and situations so pitch-perfect, that you forget you're reading fiction. The Newlyweds is that sort of novel. I was floored by it—captivated from beginning to end. And now that I'm done, I can’t stop thinking about it.” —J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine
“That Amina and George manage to muddle though the first years of marriage is a testament to the power of love and respect; that we care about them all the way through says as much about Freudenberger’s keen observations and generous heart.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“The Newlyweds crosses continents, cultures and generations. . . . It’s funny, gracefully written and full of loneliness and yearning. It’s also a candid, recognizable story about love—the real-life kind, which is often hard and sustained by hope, kindness, and pure effort.” —USA Today
“Freudenberger draws women's complex lives as brilliantly as Austen or Wharton or Woolf, and, with The Newlyweds, has given a performance of beauty and grace.” —Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Story of a Marriage
“Rich, wise, bighearted. . . . Freudenberger works with care and respect, giving a full voice to every Deshi aunt, American cousin, and passing employee at the Starbucks where Amina finds a job. Freudenberger moves gracefully between South Asian fantasies of American life and the realities of bone-cold, snow-prone upstate New York—and turns the coming together of newlyweds Amina and George into a readers’ banquet.” —Entertainment Weekly, Grade: A
“A true triumph.” —The New York Observer
“Captivating. . . . This engaging story, with its page after page of effortless prose, ultimately offers up a deeper narrative.” —The Boston Globe
“Wise, timely, ripe with humor and complexity, The Newlyweds is one of the most believable love stories of our young century.”—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
“Amina’s determination, intelligence, and resilience make her a heroine for any culture and any time.” —Marie Claire
“Exceptional . . . Here is an honest depiction of life as most people actually live it: Americans and Asians, Christians and Muslims, liberals and conservatives. Freudenberger writes with a cultural fluency that is remarkable and in a prose that is clean, intelligent, and very witty.” —David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World
1. Amina thinks, “Their courtship had more in common with her grandparents’—which had been arranged through a professional matchmaker in their village—than with her parents’, who’d had a love marriage” (p. 28). Are there fundamental differences between finding a partner on the Internet and traditional matchmaking methods? What might make a traditional arranged marriage or one made online appealing to men and women in the twenty-first century?
2. What does Amina and George’s online correspondence reveal about their respective personalities and expectations? In what ways are they well suited to each other despite their different backgrounds? What do their decisions to seek a spouse online indicate about their approaches to and ideas about marriage? How do their personal motivations influence the information they offer—and hold back?
3. “In spite of all the preparation, there was something surprising about actually finding herself in Rochester, waiting for a green card in the mail” (pp. 7–8). What aspects of Amina’s new life does she find puzzling, pleasing, or difficult to accept? Consider, for example, the dinner at George’s mother’s house (p. 18); the wedding preparations and ceremony (pp. 38–40); and her various work experiences. What presents the greatest psychological challenges? What compromises does she make and why?
4. Spurred by “Amina’s anxiety about the Muslim ceremony, without which they wouldn’t really be married” (p. 34), the couple searches for an imam to marry them. Why does Amina decide against getting married at the Islamic Center of Rochester? What does the decision reflect about the role religion plays in her life? What does it convey about her complicated attachment to her past? How does she reconcile her decision with the promises she made to her parents?
5. “She struggled to find some connection between the girl she so often imagined at home in her parents’ apartment and this American wife. . . . The task was made more difficult by the fact that there was no one in Rochester who’d known that past-Munni, and no one back at home who knew the present one” (p. 59). How does this passage capture the isolation and sense of displacement that is often part of the immigrant experience? Are there parallels between Amina’s feelings and the feelings of any young wife (or husband) in the early years of marriage?
6. How would you characterize the friendship between Kim and Amina? What does each of them find appealing in the other? Is their relationship built on genuine affection or on false premises and selfish interests?
7. How do Kim’s experiences in India (pp. 122–26) and her life with Ashok in post-9/11 New York (p. 151–55) relate to the themes of the novel? What do their stories reveal about the effects of cultural and religious prejudices on ordinary people? How do their ordeals compare to Amina’s?
8. “She and George didn’t disagree very often, but when they did it was always because of ‘cultural differences’—a phrase so useful in forestalling arguments that she felt sorry for those couples who couldn’t employ it” (p. 66). To what extent are the problems or misunderstandings in their marriage attributable to “cultural differences”? What role do the emotional differences between them play?
9. Is Amina’s search of Kim’s apartment justifiable (pp. 141–42)? Why doesn’t she confront Kim directly? Are the conclusions Amina draws about George’s family as clear-cut as she assumes (p. 143)? Is her observation, made in a moment of bitterness—“You might cheat, steal, lie, but if you confessed, you could be instantly forgiven” (p. 147)—a valid assessment of American behavior?
10. What impact does Amina’s discovery about George’s past have on the dynamics of their marriage? Does his explanation of his deception (pp. 148–49) and his subsequent behavior (pp. 156–57) change your feelings about him? In light of his confession, are Amina’s demands reasonable, or do they amount to emotional blackmail? Consider her own interpretation: “What a strange thing, she thought, to find out one day that you had built your whole life on a mistake, and the next day to discover that this fact would allow you to have your dearest wish. She wondered if this was a unique predicament, something related to the unusual circumstances of her life, or a more general human condition” (p.156). Discuss your responses to this in terms of the novel and your own experiences.
11. When she arrives in Bangladesh, Amina thinks, “You thought you were the permanent part of your own experience, . . . until you discovered that there were many selves, dissolving into one another” (p. 207). Is Amina’s experience unusual, or is this a common reaction to returning home after a long absence?
12. How does Freudenberger bring the atmosphere and social milieu of Bangladesh to life in the narrative? Which details best evoke the emotional pull Amina feels toward her homeland?
13. During a lighthearted flirtation with Nasir, Amina thinks of the past and realizes, “She had the same feelings, sweeter because they’d been dormant for so long, but her wish from that time had been granted: she was a grown woman, with everything she would need to attract a man like Nasir” (pp. 250–51). Why are she and Nasir so drawn to each other? What part does nostalgia, the comfort of the familiar, and the loneliness they experienced—Nasir in London, Amina in America—have in the awakening of their feelings? What do you think would have happened had she chosen to pursue Nasir instead of returning home to George?
14. How do their families’ examples, opinions, and advice shape Amina and George’s relationship? Compare the influences of various family members (Amina’s parents and extended family in Bangladesh; George’s mother, Eileen Stillman, and his aunt Cathy and cousin Jessica). What does the novel show about the qualities, good and bad, shared by families from every culture or country?
15. Freudenberger often moves from a scene in Rochester to a past event or conversation in Dhaka. How does this affect the flow of the plot? What does it contribute to your understanding of Amina and the forces and feelings that have shaped her?
16. “She had escaped a broken country, and George a broken heart; they had chosen each other in spite of warnings from both sides. . . . Even if neither of their motives had been pure, wasn’t it possible that something pure had come of them now?” (pp. 174–75). Does Amina and George’s commitment to each other ever evolve into genuine love? Cite specific moments in the novel to support your point of view.
17. Freudenberger ends the novel with a twist: Amina’s “Reach for the Stars” essay, which has actually been composed by Kim for a writing competition sponsored by Starbucks. As Mohsin Hamid noted in his front-cover review of The Newlyweds in The New York Times Book Review (April 29, 2012), this essay has a certain parallel to Freudenberger’s own role as author—and it poses a larger question about authenticity and storytelling. What pitfalls might Freudenberger have faced, if any, in writing Amina’s story? Do you agree with Hamid’s statement that, for fiction “the question of authenticity . . . is a red herring: nationalities, ethnicities, genders and even species do not ‘own’ the right to fictional narratives spoken in what purport to be their voices”? To what extent is Amina in her new American life crafting a persona different from the “authentic” self she knew at home?