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The Newlyweds, The Marriage Plot and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

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The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95) 
Freudenberger deftly modernizes the tried-and-true boy meets girl story so that, in her skillful hands, it becomes: boy and girl meet on an international dating website, boy comes to Bangladesh to propose, and girl agrees and moves to the United States. As in life, however, nothing is ever as easy as we might imagine and the lives of Amina Mazid, eager to move to the U.S. and bring her parents with her, and George Stillman, an engineer living in Rochester, New York who has not been upfront about his romantic past, face challenges immediately.
Freudenberger skillfully captures the lives of both Amina and George and acknowledges that neither the familiarity of a small Bangladesh village nor the impersonal—but much more comfortable—life in Rochester is perfect. Through Aminas’ eyes the reader experiences the language, political, religious and cultural confusion of a new immigrant.  As she gradually becomes more familiar with life in the United States by working at low-paying jobs and starting college, she questions whether her choice to leave her home country was wise.
Towards the end of the book she temporarily leaves her husband in order to assist her parents in obtaining visas for their upcoming move to Rochester. Living in her village again and meeting the young man she once loved leaves her questioning her original choice. She will be forced to choose between her new life abroad and the comfort of her native country. Her wry and astute comments about the unexpected twists and turns she has experienced in both Rochester and Bangladesh make this a sweet and compelling look at modern life through the eyes of a stranger.—Susan E. Zinner.

The Marriage Plot
by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $28.00)
If you’re looking for a long, leisurely, character-driven, nineteenth century sort of novel, this just might be your book. Although in no way a groundbreaking work—and unlike Eugenides’ earlier Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex in that regard—The Marriage Plot adapts the stock marriage ending of so many classical novels to present-day realities in a marvelously readable fashion.
Three members of the Brown University class of 1982 are the focus of the novel, with various other class members as hangers-on.  The novel’s point of view is third person, but the narration is always from the vantage point of one of the three primary characters.  The narrative opens at the time of their graduation, and then follows the characters through their first post-Brown year.
One of the triumvirate, Leonard Bankhead, suffers from manic-depression, and Eugenides’ depiction of his illness is consistently moving and graphic. In one spellbinding scene well into the novel, Leonard spins out of control with manic glee, and a reader is simultaneously exhilarated and paralyzed with fear and apprehension as Leonard carries out his “brilliant plan.” The scene stands out as a masterpiece of fine writing.
Another character, Mitchell Grammaticus, like Eugenides himself a Greek-American from Detroit, travels to Europe and India, working at one point with Mother Theresa.  Eugenides renders Mitchell’s insights into himself and his decisions for the future with gentleness and perspicacity.
The third character is Madeleine Hanna, a WASP eastern prep school student from a New Jersey town suspiciously like Princeton, where Eugenides now teaches in the creative writing program. It is a bold move for Eugenides to spend a third of his novel inside the head of a young female character, and in truth, she is the least interesting and successful of the three characters. However, through Madeleine, Eugenides does satirize trends in 1980s literary criticism in a richly entertaining way, and he does get much about Madeleine right.
Eugenides obviously loves all three of his characters, and the humor with which he turns them loose to spin his surprisingly suspenseful story is always a pleasure. The Marriage Plot is more than anything else a novel of character—and a realistic novel about the difficulty of starting out in life, especially in an economically bleak period very similar to the one we are now experiencing. Like the best of literature, the book ennobles the human struggle.
—Julie West Johnson

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
by Helen Simonson (Random House, $25.00)
This first novel is a story of unexpected romance between a retired English military officer and an Anglo-Pakistani shopkeeper, each mature, widowed, and clinging to civility despite the intrusions of the contemporary world.
Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali have been acquainted for years, but get to know each other only when she comes to his aid when he nearly collapses at the unexpected news of his brother’s death. A cautious friendship very gradually turns into love, somewhat to the surprise of the lovers.
There are echoes of Jane Austen in the characterizations of English village life, done with humor, sympathy and wit. Differences arise—more from ignorance than malevolence—between classes, generations and races. The aging couple encounters resistance from the local gentry, his avaricious son, and her militantly Islamic nephew as they are drawn into each other’s worlds.
At first the novel may appear to be saccharine, there is plenty of spice to satisfy the reader.—Cynthia Taubert

Published: August 19, 2012
Issue: Fall 2012 Issue