Thursday, September 30, 2010

Short-a-Day: Nell Freudenberger's "An Arranged Marriage"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, Sept. 6, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 71.

It never ceases to amaze me, how differently people see the world. That alone makes a great case for marriage: sharing the world with someone with another viewpoint is like suddenly donning 3D glasses--the two lenses join together and create a whole new world. Freudenberger doesn't entirely reach those heights, but that's mainly because the story remains focused on a Bengali, Amina, whose jumpy narrative is a little confusing and takes some getting used to, and doesn't tell us much about George, the American man she's marrying. The details of their e-mail courtship are the highlights of the piece, but they're not the story. Watch the way George cries at what she thought was a funny anecdote (to her, eating only a single egg each day is normal; to him, it is tragic) to the way she asks herself if she could love George, learning to fall for each of his features individually: "She covered the eyes and asked the same question of the nose (more challenging because of the way it protruded, different from any nose she know). She had slept on it, but the following day at British Council (an agony to wait until the computer was free) she'd been pleased to discover that the photograph was better than she remembered. By the end of the day she thought that she could love even the nose."

As the story continues, it becomes clearer and clearer that this is a collection of observations more than it is a fully fleshed out story: here's the sad truth about her ailing grandmother ("When you tried to trick God in that way, bad things could happen"), here's how the father's financial straits are causing his wife to develop ulcers, and here's how the loss of Amina's virginity stacks up in comparison. ("She was surprised by how unpleasant it was"; doesn't that speak well for love in the modern age?) It's true that there's a running theme--a weight, if you will--of how all these needless American costs are causing Amina anxiety--to become one of those frivolous wastrels, against her will. But that doesn't fully help to explain a last-minute bit of drama at the wedding, as Amina gets a call from her sobbing mother, depressed after all that she can't afford to visit: "'She says it would have been better if you'd never been born,' her father said finally."

Still, while there is much that Freudenberger doesn't tell, her ending--in which Amina explains why she hesitated to kiss George before the wedding clerk--satisfies the moments that are presented here. Everything that we've read, these are all the thoughts that have fluttered through the immigrant's head, this attempt to console two different worlds, and though the wedding is supposedly a union, it becomes clear by her word choice at the very end, that for better or worse, she is going to be an American now; the past is struck dumb.

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