Here’s my ‘why-I-read-this-book-scenario’: a 21st-century equivalent to the mail-order bride from Bangladesh, her middle-class white American engineer sponsor hubby, the suburban New York life they attempt to share … presented by one of the more lauded, fellowship-granted, award-winning (non-ethnically Asian) writers of the Net Generation. Nell Freudenberger’s high-profile youth and beauty also seem to be enviously newsworthy, engendering one of the most clever pun-ish variations of a name: schadenfreudenberger. [Surely that deserves at least an appreciative smirk!]
Amina is an educated young woman, although not as degreed as she had wanted to be, due to her parents’ financial limitations. At 24, she’s old enough to dream of something more than tutoring wealthy children to help them get the education she couldn’t have. When she’s unable to secure entry into an American university with a full scholarship, she takes the next best option (inspired by a Voice of America radio broadcast!) and registers with AsiaEuro.com to get her MRS. On the other side of the world, in a Rochester suburb, George – so aptly named Stillman, as in ‘still a man,’ and ‘still waters run deep’ – wants to find a “‘straightforward’” woman who “did not play games, unlike some women he knew.”
Their online relationship has a few interruptions, but eventually George travels to Dhaka with a family heirloom ring in hand – although he doesn’t go for the “down on one knee or anything like that” – and Amina is soon making the arrangements for her transcontinental move. Marriage happens, although in a town hall rather than the Muslim temple Amina promised her parents before her immigration. The new couple settles into their culturally-crossed life together … but being virtual strangers, their emotional intertwining is more challenging, especially since both have deeply held secrets, one that’s happened and one that has yet to occur.
In a Q&A with the New Yorker (where Freudenberger once worked as an editorial assistant, where she was named one of the covetously regarded “20 Under 40” in 2010), she reveals that Amina is “loosely based” (with permission) on a friend she met on an airplane, who was also an internet bride from Bangladesh on her way to meet her American bethrothed.
Perhaps because Freudenberger tells someone else’s intimate real-life story is why the novel never feels quite convincing. Her characters are smart, layered, and occasionally, welcomingly unpredictable, especially Amina who is much more than the wide-eyed new bride in a strange new land than she lets on. While Freudenberger’s writing is certainly admirable (George’s mendacious lost-soul cousin has some of the best lines, and is also especially richly-voiced by narrator Mozhan Marnò), too much about the story feels distanced, as if we’re watching practiced actors rather than getting to know real people. Yes, it’s a novel, but you still want to believe …