Nell Freudenberger: “An Arranged Marriage”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Nell Freudenberger’s “An Arranged Marriage” was originally published in the September 6, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

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Nell Freudenberger won the PEN/Malamud Award the year after Maile Meloy. Meloy has become one of my favorite short story writers, so I was hoping that Freudenbeger’s story here would introduce me to a new favorite writer.

For the second week in a row, I did not like the story at all. In fact, I actively disliked this one. I have a hard time believing that a story like this came from the same pen that won a PEN/Malamud, so I’m going to forget I read “An Arranged Marriage” — perhaps believe I was just in a terrible mood, though I wasn’t — and consider myself and Nell Freudenberger strangers still. I’ll still check out her award-winning book of short stories, though it will be because I honor that award and not because of anything this story did for me.

I was turned off at the very beginning:

Theirs was the second-to-last house on the road. The road ended in an asphalt circle called a cul-de-sac . . .

I’m not sure why Freudenberger felt the need to talk down to her reader here and explain that an asphalt circle is “called a cul-de-sac.” After I read it, I paused and felt doubt creep up behind me. During this pause I looked back at the first sentence, a sentence which, I’m afraid, doesn’t bear much scrutiny. It is an irrelevant and uninteresting detail, and “the road” is a weak swing from one sentence to the other, especially when both sentences droll with the same plodding rhythm (after “cul-de-sac” the sentence continues, “and the cul-de-sac was a field of corn”).  Just two sentences . . . you can see where this is going.

I put the story down, realizing that if I kept going I would only find things I perceived as bad. When I came back to the story, the sentences weren’t any better. So I asked myself, Is this part of the narrative voice? Perhaps. I kept going and realized that this story, told in the third-person, closely follows the thoughts of Amina, a Muslim woman from Bangledesh, as she discovers her new home in an unfamiliar America with an unfamiliar American. Perhaps this is why, later, Freudenberger feels no need to define ujjal shamla as she did “cul-de-sac”; she provides a bit of context around ujjal shamla and trusts the readers will figure it out. Still, the narrator is not that “close” to Amina to make me feel that I was getting a subjective stream of her thoughts, that the sentence structure itself related to Amina’s mind. With the sentences, the story started to feel forced, fake. Everywhere I looked I felt like I was running into something written by the numbers, especially in the first few paragraphs which seem to be thrown in there to add requisite color to Amina’s third-world past:

Those deaths were the reason that Nanu had become the way she was now, quiet and heavy, like a stone.

The underlying premise of the story is interesting. In fact, the premise of the story is true. In her interview with The New Yorker, Freudenberger says that she once met a woman flying from Bangledesh to America to marry an American man she’d met on the internet. The woman came from a conventional Muslim family, so her decision was bizarre.

I don’t think the story does a good job showing this. We never get a decent look under the surface of Amina’s motives. Rather, they seem to be what we’d expect: “Of course, the easiest way to come to America is to find an American and get married!” This certainly isn’t unbelievable, but it is uninteresting here. The more interesting elements, like the seeming similarities between her marriage and that of her grandparents (“An Arranged Marriage”) are given fairly short shrift:

Their courtship had more in common with her grandparents’ — which had been arranged through a professional matchmaker in their village — than it did with that of her parents, who had had a love marriage and run away to Khulna when her mother was seventeen years old. Her grandparents hadn’t seen each other until their wedding day, but they had examined photos.

As the story moves to its end, it does have some other interesting elements, but I never felt like any of them were developed well if at all. It almost sounded like someone telling the story on an airplane, a flash of memory here, a momentary bit of humanity there, but mostly just rote, impersonal conversation.

It is a shame that in her interview she says, “I think the only thing a reader needs is an authentic voice — I mean the ability to make someone feel that the thing you’re telling is worth hearing.” I’m not sure if I know how that is voice, but at any rate I’d say this piece lacks an authentic anything and only occasionally gives a glimpse of something worth hearing. For the most part, it felt formulaic down to the subjunctive clauses.

Perhaps besides the bad sentences, this piece was doomed from the beginning: Freudenberger is from New York, and over the past several weeks we’ve been treated to plenty of authentic writing about the immigrant experience from gifted writers who have actually experienced it. I would highlight Daniel Alarcón, David Bezmozgiz, and Dinaw Mengetsu; and even though I didn’t like it, Yiyun Li’s story was much better, much more immediate and visceral, than this one — I found it boring but even then “worth hearing.” Freudenberger is right that her conversation with the Bangledeshi woman on the plan had a fascinating backstory, and I don’t particularly care if a native New Yorker writes about the immigrant experience, but, from my perspective, she failed to make it hers. Unfortunately, this appears to be related to her next novel.

12 thoughts on “Nell Freudenberger: “An Arranged Marriage””

  1. New fiction forum up! And we’re getting close to finished with the 20 Under 40.

  2. Another bad week for me and The New Yorker. My thoughts above on this promising story made trivial and formulaic.

  3. Ken says:

    I appreciated your comments. I enjoyed this story as it was pretty entertaining and fluid (for me at least) and I sympathized with the character but thinking about it, I realize (partly through your comments) that it has no depth or particularly interesting ideas. The main character is sympathetic but not very well drawn and the descriptions of both the U.S. and Bangladesh do feel rote. I also feel like I’ve seen and read many narratives about South Asians in either the UK or the US, narratives often dealing with cross-racial marriages.

  4. I almost put a note above wondering whether we’d be on polar sides of this story, too, Ken. Sounds like while I really disliked it that you are more along the lines of “unimpressed.”

    By the way, when I almost wrote that comment to you, I wasn’t sure “polar” was the correct word. I think we are both sensitive to qualities in literature. If we were truly polar, one of us wouldn’t be reading The New Yorker :) .

  5. Tim says:

    This was a tough one to read. Freudenberger’s story seemed more constructed than created, especially with the tie-in to being “dumbstruck” at the end. Three-fourths through there is the set-up for this moment. Amina knows what the word means, but uses not knowing as an excuse.

    She elaborates on the meaning: “It meant so surprised that you could not speak. As Cousin Jessica continued to talk—about her weight and Amina’s, about the foods she ate, didn’t eat, or intended to eat—Amina concentrated on nodding and making noises to show that she understood. It was possible to be struck dumb by all sorts of emotion, not only surprise, and as they drove back toward Pittsford Amina thought that there ought to be a whole set of words to encompass those different varieties of silence.”

    All this weight is given to the moment, to the definition, and then when it comes back at the ending it is too neat and formulaic.

    “Amina hesitated, but her husband was patient until she found the right words.

    ‘Not only surprised,’ she said. ‘I was dumbstruck.’”

  6. I see so far there are no dissenters to the opinion that this piece really stunk. I’d love to hear a defense of it, if there is one, because I’m still looking back on it with distaste. I just wasn’t well done.

    The inclusion of this piece made me question the process by which these 20 authors got to have some of their work published. Did the editors go through their pieces before the announcement was made to ensure a quality piece? Or did they simply ask if the author had a piece ready? If the latter, were they incredibly disappointed to publish this? I certainly don’t always like what’s published in The New Yorker, but this one looked so transparently sophomoric and cliched that I can’t help but hope it would never have been published in other circumstances.

    I do know, though, that regardless of the above, not all of the fiction editors have to agree that a piece is good for it to be included. If this one had a strong advocate, hopefully there was some vocal opposition.

  7. Smita says:

    I agree with the blog post completely. The story was insipid. Nothing about Bangladesh resonated. Pittsford is a pretty affluent suburb in Upstate New York – the semi-rural references are totally off. I agree that the work seems more contrived / constructed than inspired / creative. Fortunately, Wells Tower saved the day in this week’s issue.

  8. Ken says:

    I’m pretty disappointed with the whole 20 over 40 collection. A few I’ve really liked but mostly mediocrity. We’re not, by the way, “polar” opposites for the reasons you mentioned.

  9. Paul says:

    I did not like this story either, but I think you missed the point about the ‘cul-de-sac’. The story is from the Amina’s POV and ‘cul-de-sac’ is clearly a word she has just learned and finds strange. The narrator’s use of this word is intended to tell us about Amina. This is equivalent to writing from the POV of a young city boy brought to the country: “There was tall tower near the barn called a silo.”

  10. I certainly recognized that possibility, Paul:

    Is this part of the narrative voice? Perhaps. I kept going and realized that this story, told in the third-person, closely follows the thoughts of Amina, a Muslim woman from Bangledesh, as she discovers her new home in an unfamiliar America with an unfamiliar American. Perhaps this is why, later, Freudenberger feels no need to define ujjal shamla as she did “cul-de-sac”; she provides a bit of context around ujjal shamla and trusts the readers will figure it out. Still, the narrator is not that “close” to Amina to make me feel that I was getting a subjective stream of her thoughts, that the sentence structure itself related to Amina’s mind.

    It is meant to sound pensive and reflective, particularly with its combination of “theirs was.” I just think it, like the rest of the story, is a contrivance.

  11. While I would not call this a great story, I don’t share Trevor’s visceral dislike of it. Yes, the prose is flat — but Amina is facing a pretty flat set of options and has made an equally empty choice. The comparison to her grandparents’ marriage did strike a responsive note with me.

  12. That comparison, Kevin, was the only thing I liked about this story. Perhaps I read it at a bad time — it must have been a very bad time — because I still get a bit worked up over its inclusion :).

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