Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.
to e-mail us:
support the site
buy us books !
- Return to top of the page -
B : has some surface appeal, but too little depth
See our review for fuller assessment.
- Return to top of the page -
The complete review's Review:
Nell Freudenberger's girls are more jittery than lucky in this collection of five stories.
Largely from privileged backgrounds, they live in -- or are at least exposed to -- the whole wide world, and still find themselves at sea.
Their damaged families make for damaging environments in which they struggle, to differing extents (and largely unsuccessfully), to find a hold.
"It was a misunderstanding," her daughter said. "It was a cultural thing actually."The second telephone conversation is only recalled months after the first: the events took place in October, but only when Alice and her estranged husband arrive in Bangkok to spend Christmas with their daughter (and son Josh, who is attending college in Maine) is it related, the interim largely simply glossed over.
Mindy's reaction to her rape becomes more understandable when the details of her family life are revealed. She tells her Mom:
"I want you all to come at Christmas," Mandy says. "I want everything to be the way it was."Even here the longing for family is tempered -- she wants them there at Christmas, not immediately (and she certainly doesn't want to return to the fold herself). And even the brief nostalgia comes across only with some hesitation: what was was an uncomfortable illusion, and even Mandy's present, with an abusive boyfriend, is apparently preferable to pretending there is a happy family to be embraced and comforted by.
This family is, at best, a unit of convenience and habit. It is functional almost only on an instinctual level (a united sibling front against the adults, intimacy based almost entirely on familiarity between the parents). There's little communication and understanding among the four -- and when there is it tends to be of the unspoken and/or role-playing sort (each knowing his and her part). The dialogue is excruciating, as if four people with nothing to do with one another have been thrown together.
Matters aren't made any better by the fact that Alice and Jeff have been separated for six months and haven't told the kids yet -- but that's the sort of family this is.
In Bangkok Mom and Dad are the fish-out-of-water ugly American tourists. Mandy, meanwhile, tries too hard to show how at home she is here -- when she calls her mother to say she's been raped she takes the time to explain that the Thai alphabet has "forty-four letters so there are all these letters that we don't even have". Rapist Joo -- at 31 about a decade Mandy's senior (no surprise there) -- is introduced to the family, but his is a cameo appearance (though his deed hovers always over these events). Mandy works with AIDS babies, and the title of the story comes from a visit the family makes at her workplace. Alice isn't comfortable there, but Jeff instantly bonds with one of the children, and it leads Alice to more introspection, of all that's gone wrong and how things might go right. But there's no easy resolution, no way to a happy end.
These are shattered lives, each clinging to a fierce sort of independence, as if that might sustain them. There are glimpses of vulnerability -- Mandy's call, a rare tear -- but even the concluding coming together is done carefully, thoughtfully, almost mechanically, devoid of passion. No one is able to give in completely to the other any longer. The possible exception is Mandy: it seems she may have overcome her initial outrage and is now willingly submissive under the fists of her boyfriend: "Maybe I kind of liked it" she tells her mother about the assault and rape -- words that can be taken as either cruel tease or a flailing attempt to justify why she sticks it out with this bum. Staying with Joo is the sacrifice she might be willing to make for some semblance of happiness; all she can compare it with is her family and its miserable (and possibly more painful) failures. The story's ending leaves it open, whether she will return with her family or stay in Thailand; the choice isn't an obvious one.
Outside the Eastern Gate offers yet another dysfunctional family in its terminal collapse. The narrator is almost forty, but, unlike her older sister, she hasn't really made a career for herself yet. Mom is dead, and Dad is succumbing to dementia. The story begins with an early memory, of childhood in India. In the spring of 1969 the mother planned to travel overland from India through Afghanistan to Istanbul; the father was taking up a post there in the fall. The narrator, seven at the time, believed she was going on the trip too, with older sister Penny and her parents' friend, Vivian. Instead, she is left behind (with the father), cruelly abandoned at the last minute.
The adventurous mother eventually abandons the entire family. It's not surprising: mother and father were an odd match to begin with, the spirited manic-depressive (or otherwise psychologically disordered) woman and her steadfast scientist husband. But there is no safe haven or truly reliable anchor in a Freudenberger story, or so it would seem: the unchanging pillar that was the father is now losing his mind. (Tellingly, also, the only happy romantic relationship is the one between Vivian and the mentally increasingly impaired father.)
The narrator visits her father in Delhi, where he now lives again. Memories are dredged up and sought out (the narrator wants to find her mother's journals). The mother-figure remains elusive; the father grows increasingly, frustratingly so -- not yet lost, but clearly well on his way.
The first sentence of Outside the Eastern Gate is:
I was supposed to be born in Delhi, but when doctors at AIIMS discovered that my blood was O negative, different from that of my mother and my father, they insisted that we return to Boston, where I was born at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital with no complications.From the first, she is out of place. India is where her mother wanted to give birth, and Delhi is a place where her father can return to in his retirement, but at first and even now it is not as welcoming to the narrator: she remains the outsider. The mention of the blood-types also emphasises that, though she is her parents' daughter, she is different. And yet, as presented, the story is also a coming to terms with the fact that she is very much her parents' daughter and that these are the footsteps she follows in.
She appears to suffer from a similar mental imbalance as her mother, and one of the eeriest scenes is when she recounts her mother finding her when she is six, crying and claiming she can't stop:
"You too," she said. "Not you too."One at least has to admire Freudenberger's gumption, of imagining little kids whose greatest joy is to see their mother's recognise their own madness reflected in them. But it's a too forced arrangement of personalities (themselves -- mother and father and Indian servant, in particular -- cardboard-cutout types) in this story, and a too confused overlap of present and past, dead and alive, forgotten and remembered. There are interesting bits to the story, but the whole doesn't lead far enough.
The Tutor is a two-track narrative, shifting focus between Julia, an American girl living in Mumbai (Bombay) and preparing for her SATs, and her Indian tutor, Zubin. Both are smart -- Julia scores in the top percentiles on the math portion of these standardized tests, while Zubin got his BA from Harvard, studied at Oxford, and then began work towards a PhD at Columbia before abandoning it and returning to India -- and yet both lead almost aimless lives, unable to devote themselves to any particular future. Zubin wants to write, Julia wants to go to Berkeley, but neither is able (or, rather: willing) to focus clearly on their goals, allowing themselves to easily be distracted.
Julia suffers from the same sort of supranational ennui of many of Freudenberger's other characters, familiar with the entire world (she'd grown up in "first San Francisco, then Delhi, then Dallas, Moscow, and Paris"), yet not at home anywhere. Her parents are, of course, recently separated, and she has chosen to live with her father, in out of the way Bombay (rather than New York, where her mother moves to), another respite: "I'd rather start over in college -- with everybody else", she explains.
Given the preceding stories, there's no need to guess whether or not Julia will wind up sleeping with a man considerably her senior ..... Freudenberger doesn't focus solely on her, however; Zubin is as fully realised as Julia (even if that's still only half-realised), as she describes some of his expatriate experiences, especially the initial efforts at fitting in at Harvard, and then bits of his life back in India. Much remains sketchy, but both his and her fumblings with the other sex -- a few limited experiences -- are presented, as is their odd dance around each other. They're not quite sure what they want, expect, or can demand from each other -- though each eventually seems to take (and get) what they need.
Letters from the Last Bastion is an epistolary story. Addressed only to "Dear Sir or Madam", it is a sort of un-application letter, a reaction to finding a college application that the letter-writer's mother had left for her on the table. The writer is a seventeen year-old girl. She signs the letter: 'Miss Fish', explaining earlier that that is what she's sometimes called. Her mother started it:
She says this is not because my eyes are too big but because I watch people, including her. She says that I am a smart, slippery kind of girl.It allows her to separate her identity, to choose different approaches and present different fronts. She describes her doubled self in one scene:
In a way it was like being two people: myself (my name is on the envelope, if you're curious) and someone else (for example, Miss Fish) at the same time. One person was feeling very strange, and the other was thinking very hard about what was happening, and those feelings and thoughts were very different.The college she is writing to is one where Henry Marks is a Writer-in-Residence. Henry Marks writes letters to this seventeen year-old girl, describing his life and his work -- and his work in progress, The Last Bastion, which he's having trouble finishing and which features a girl of the same age. The connexion between the correspondents isn't immediately obvious, but Miss Fish eventually reveals it -- though only after alternating between her own limited experiences and her descriptions of Marks' letters and works (fiction based largely on his own experiences). The approach makes sense, as she is trying to explain how these two people came to be in the positions they are -- and why she will become an optometrist instead of going to that college.
Henry says that a novel is a letter you write to someone you don't know; or someone you do know who is separated from you for whatever reason.So her letter is also her stab at literary creation (having carefully noted previously that Henry "finds the distinction between fiction and nonfiction to be increasingly meaningless"), addressed to the vaguest "Dear Sir or Madam" (while well aware that the letter might be passed on to Marks). But, looking ahead, she's sure the safe world of optometry is the better way to channel her people-watching ways, rather than Marks-style writing.
Letters from the Last Bastion is the most ambitious of the stories in the collection, an attempt to play with form and content. There's not enough to it, ultimately, to sustain it all -- and much of Marks' life and works simply not compelling enough (despite the exotic locales -- wartime Viet Nam, etc.) -- but it's the most interesting of all these attempts to tie up and convey lives entirely in the space of a single story.
Until the bumpy last story, Lucky Girls is a smooth collection of similar tales. In all of them the families are wrecks, without a single central parent-couple that remains happily united. In each, except the last, the families are well-heeled, the kids raised across the world (and even the last story sneaks in the exotic locales, albeit second-hand).
These are fitful stories, character studies without fully realised characters. One of Freudenberger's characters believes:
people were all different things at the same time. They were like onions under fine layers of skin; you didn't ever peel away a last layer, because the layers were what they were.Some of these fine layers Freudenberger conveys well, but there's a gossamer lightness to them all, and no depth; the layering -- the second and third and fourth beneath the surface -- is largely missing.
The young women at the centre of these stories, in particular, are smart but aimless: there's little convincing purpose to these lives. Even if this is precisely what ails them, Freudenberger does not make their stories particularly compelling. They are also remarkably flat; it's not surprising that Freudenberger is unable even to pin a name on many of them.
All the stories are crafted, lacking a natural flow: the sections are ably (and occasionally entirely convincingly) written, but there's no innate sense of storytelling at work here. Pasts are only revealed in small doses until they finally explain the present, and Freudenberger works not so much with turns of phrase but turns of scene -- but to such a degree that the stories are left practically twisting in the wind. The endings aren't forcibly tacked on, but Freudenberger's careful conclusions are more roundings-off -- at best small epiphanies.
The prose is relatively spare, the stories heavy on unembellished dialogue. The range is somewhat limited -- one finds, for example, on page 79: "I had never been so happy in my life", while on page 204: "He had never been so happy in his life"; that's a hard sentence to get away with once, and she certainly can't twice -- but there's no jarringly bad writing here, and some which is quite good. There are many nice, small touches -- bits of the exotic locales, or a number of the reactions -- but the wholes aren't quite as appealing.
Lucky Girls offers nice writing, but on the whole -- despite the foreign vistas and lucky girls -- it is a bit bland, without enough substance or depth to truly impress.
- Return to top of the page -
- Return to top of the page -
American author Nell Freudenberger was born in 1975. Lucky Girls is her first book.
- Return to top of the page -