The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
In Amina, a Bangladeshi woman, new to this country, Nell Freudenberger has created a character with a tangible inner life. This may be the essential job of the novelist yet often we are not lucky to see it. Instead we may find signifiers for who a person is—their clothing, the material world around them—external markers. Freudenberger reveals Amina first in these material ways, the ways that perhaps Amina sees herself, aspiring as she does to obtain all the outward signs of American success, and then later, internally. She’s a character who doesn’t know her thoughts, suffers from self-deception, perfectionism, her own outgrown ambitions and her buried desires.
As its title suggests it’s a book about marriage. The relationship depicted is at first deceptively simple. It thickens incrementally as Freudenberger reveals its origins. In the end I came to see the institution in a new way: it’s a formal bond that may start from an authentic connection or from nothing more than a contractual exchange of needs (Amina needs to become an American with George’s help, George needs to create a family with her help.) Yet within that dry, almost mercenary start, a true connection blooms.
Her method is never flashy; slow, incremental, precise and clear, she guides us into her characters and their position in the world. The feat is huge: Amina convinces you that Freudenberger has been possessed by a Bangladeshi woman when she is truly an American from LA. (Amina's perception of Bangladesh when she returns is searingly vivid and palpable.) In the author's full identification with this character, we gain full access to what feels like a real life.
The Marriage Plot by Jeff Eugenides
Leonard is insane. He’s also the most compelling character in this book about three Brown students in the late eighties. The hollow grayness of boredom, the fear of growing up, the high of being in love, a sense of failure and then grandiosity, are all depicted as—not just the heart of his illness-- but the heart of human nature. The pages in which Leonard decreases his medication in order to feel himself (whatever that inimitable thing a self, actually is) are pages of genius; he is not just compelling, he is sympathetic. As we read, he is no longer a freak but a tragic figure.
A friend commented that Eugenides must have suffered manic depressive illness himself or have known someone who had. That’s irrelevant. It’s his imagination (whether connected to an ill or “normal” mind) and his use of language that has enabled him to create this indelible, painfully accurate portrait.
Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman
Can your baby wait for a marshmallow? The answer may determine their future success. Druckerman describes a study in which toddlers are asked to delay gratification; such an ability, she writes is endemic to French children in contrast to their American counterparts. Living in Paris and raising three children, Druckerman writes beautifully about the cultural differences among French and American parents. Her tone is humorous, relying at times on good doses of generalization. I found her lament familiar and hilarious while my mother and her peer didn’t seem to connect to it. My guess is that the divide about parenting is perhaps not only national but generational. Our parents knew to make us wait for gratification, but somehow our generation can’t make our children do the same. My American friend living in Europe put it this way, “French parents say “non” more than any other word.”