My New American Life by Francine Prose (2011) Harper Collins (2011) 306 pp
Though I’ve not read many of her books, I have a suspicion that Francine Prose is one of our underrated — or, at least, underread — novelists. I very much enjoyed Goldengrove, and found much more to it than most critics, some of whom attempted to dismiss it as young adult (whether such a claim should be dismissive is another argument). Despite my good experiences with her, I wasn’t really looking forward to My New American Life. The plot sounded too much like a polemic against the Bush-Cheney years. Not that those years don’t deserve their criticism; it’s that they do get plenty of criticism, every day, almost everywhere. What could this book offer? The cover didn’t add anything to my excitement nor did it do anything to dispel my wariness that this book might be a bit overstated.
It turns out my wariness was justified. Despite the book’s strengths, it is rather blunt criticism, familiar to anyone who pays attention, of the last decade. It begins in October 2005, a little less than a year into Bush’s second term, which was already considered the Cheney administration.
But, all that aside for a minute, I must say that Prose can write wonders. I was fully engaged in the novel until about the last quarter, despite my belief that the characters were typical and familiar. She has a great pen, and her ability to tell a story is what pulled me through this otherwise disappointing novel.
It’s a fine day in October 2005. Lula, an Albanian immigrant who has been living illegally in the United States, has found a sponsor and is now living in my neck of the woods in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City. Her sponsor is Stanley Larch, an economist who gave up teaching at a univeristy (a job he loved) to make more money working at an investment bank. Of course, he’s now miserable but cannot afford to go back. It does his troubled heart wonders to help Lula. With the assistance of one of his childhood friends, immigration lawyer extraordinaire Don Settebello, Stanley has secured Lula legal status. It’s a wonderful morning. And Lula is happy to help Stanley and Don feel like they’re doing good:
Lula knew that some Americans cheered every time INS agents raided factories and shoved dark little chicken-packagers into the backs of trucks. She’d seen the guys on Fox News calling for every immigrant except German supermodels and Japanese baseball players to be deported, no questions asked. But others, like Mister Stanley and Don Settebello, acted as if coming from somewhere else was like having a handicap or surviving cancer. It meant you were brave and resilient. And being able to help you made them feel better about themselves and their melting-pot country. Their motives were pure, or mostly pure. They liked power and being connected, they liked knowing which strings to pull.
Lula’s job is fairly simple: don’t worry too much about the house, just focus on Stanley’s teenage son Zeke. About one year earlier, on Christmas Eve, Zeke’s mother abandoned him and Stanley. Lula feels she can be some sort of balm for this family, especially since Stanley and Zeke never see each other, and don’t particularly like it when they do. In her spare time, which is substantial, Lula, encouraged by Stanley and Don Settebello, writes stories from her homeland and about her new American life (they suggest she call the journal My New American Life). Lula passes the stories off as her own, though in fact they are not. Her life has been hard — she lost her parents during the UN bombings — but in fact the real drama she injects into her journal, the stuff that really makes her seem like a lost immigrant, comes from her ancestors or is made up. It’s not even fully true that her parents died in the bombings; her dad, drunk, was driving back to his homeland when the bombings were occurring — he wrecked the car.
But back to the first chapter, to that fine October morning. In the very first lines Lula sees a black Lexus SUV approaching. It passes the front of the house ominously but does not stop. Nevertheless, she’s nervous: “Blame her delicate nervous system on growing up under a system that thought the Soviet Union was too liberal and was best friends with China until the dictator decided that China was too liberal, and China cut them loose.” It’s here we get a bit of the backstory. But then the SUV approaches again. This first chapter goes back and forth in time, we constantly see the black Lexus SUV approaching, but it is drawn out nicely and fluently; the tension builds, but Prose moves away from that scene to the past so smoothly, we don’t complain. It isn’t until page 25 that the SUV finally stops in front of the house and three Albanian males get out.
They come because they found out — connections — that Lula was Albanian and granted legal status. All Albanians are family, they say, so they’ve come to ask a minor favor. Can she please just watch this gun for them. Obviously worried her fresh legal status is in jeopardy, Lula nevertheless complies. On the one hand, how can she say no now that they’re there; on the same hand, she’s extremely attracted to one of them — The Cute One. The Cute One, whose name, it turns out, is Alvo — at least, that’s what she knows him by — is the one in charge. In the days that come, rather than fret about her legal status, she cannot wait until Alvo comes back for the gun or for another favor.
From there the story continues decently as Lula’s relationship with Stanley and Zeke (and Alvo), and with American culture in general, develops. At the same time, the plot becomes more and more stretched to get around the book’s concepts. For me, the book is set up nicely, but this contortion of the plot prevents it from ever going deeper. It is entertaining, a nice read, but it doesn’t dig down and expose anything new or interesting. I’m pretty sure that, despite little description here, you already have a fine idea for just who Stanley, Zeke, and Don Settebello are. I doubt you’re far off.
Nevertheless, as in Goldengrove there is more going on under the surface of the story: “the relationship, however regrettable, between deception and survival”; putting Lula’s story against this time in American history. Lula finds it to her advantage to make things up. Lying is, often, the most natural reaction in any situation. In fact, when she feels she can tell the truth, she’s relieved. Prose is digging a bit deeper here as some of the characters, because of deception lose “the right to say what had happened.” The journals are fake, much of who she’s presented herself to be is not true. Interetingly, Stanley and Don know this.