The story, from the small blurb on my reader's edition, initially seems an intriguing one. An inter-racial, inter-national, inter-religious couple falls in love on-line and, once married, sorts out what marriage is all about. However, characterizing this book as a" richly observed story of love and marriage" seems to me to be a gross misrepresentation. This is not a book about marriage; it is a book about one particular, marriage which is mostly a side note to the story of a determined woman's desire to bring herself and her parents to live in the 'First World'. Love for each other plays a very small part in the actions of the two partners.
I found the first quarter of the book to be the weakest due to a very evident lack of research. The author's non Bangla background comes through very strongly in the depiction of the main character's motivations, speech, familial expectations, etc. which sound completely American. I felt that the author did not really get into the head of her Bangladeshi heroine who, supposedly, was still close to her roots in the village. Cross cultural differences (beyond just speaking English mildly differently) are not explored and the dialogue among the Bangladeshi family could belong to an American drawing room. Amina's parents' support for her plan to find a husband online (so that all of them can emigrate to the US), their willingness to send her overseas with a man they have only met for a week and the fact that a fiancée visa to the US was arranged within a week was mindboggling.
Amina's arrival in the US is a casual event. It is as if she just moved from one state to another - or switched from Europe to the US. Yes small differences pop up but for the most part it is smooth sailing. If there is a shocking effect on people from the US when they visit third world countries, things are equally shocking going the other way. The author misses the chance to explore the trauma of immigration and instead casually points out a few differences as if she is sprinkling in anecdotes heard from real immigrants to try and make the book more believable.
What the author does initially try to do is explore the fact that this is a marriage between two people of different faiths. Islam, however, is an encroaching threat in this book and something that Amina promptly pushes out of her life in the US. George's promised conversion to Islam falls by the wayside and the exploration of their differences in religion fizzles out quickly. Amina seems to only encounter flat one dimensional Americans without layers of personality. Kim is a stereotypical hippie, yogi, backpacker; Cathy's character is a a depository of all things ignorant and intolerant, her co workers are never fully drawn in and George - well, George is so mildly drawn as to be non existent!
Where the author really hits her stride is in the last quarter of the book where the marriage (and pathetic George) fade in to the background and Amina returns to Bangladesh to bring her parents back to the US. Her longing for the old and familiar, even if it is dangerous and filthy, will speak to any emigrant. The beauty of the Bangladeshi countryside is all the more obvious to her for her knowledge that she may never see it again. While the old traditions make family life so constrained and always open to criticism, she compares it to the loneliness of living in the US and questions which way is better.
However, the tension created at the end is not enough to save the book. Amina's wishy washy attitude towards her own marriage, inconsistencies in the text, threads that are begun and then lost and Amina's very confusing hopes regarding her cousin made the book seem almost unfinished when it finally ended. My biggest question was not what happened to Amina, or her parents but what happened to George? His character was the least developed in the book. We barely get a glimpse at him, physical, psychological or in dialogue. He ends up being background music to Amina's waltz through life and his desires, hopes and dreams always take the back seat. His grand deception seems more like dirty laundry compared to what Amina is planning. Vague but always supportive, stereotypical but mostly harmless he ended up being the one I could sympathize with instead of Amina who only came across as a scheming green card hunter of the worst kind. George's only importance in her life seemed to be as a source of income and a way to get her citizenship.
In brief, this is not a book about marriage - it is about how marriage can be used as a means to an end.