"An Arranged Marriage" by Nell Freudenberger Originally published in the September 6, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
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.