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[THENEWLYWEDS BY FREUDENBERGER, NELL]PAPERBACK (Englisch) Taschenbuch – 2. August 2012
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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.
The novel is interesting in showing how the cultural differences between the young couple invite both laughter and anger, but I cannot imagine Bangladeshi parents encouraging their only child to emigrate and marry a non-Muslim man about whom she knows very little.
There are many characters in this book, but none of them became "real" to me, including Amina and George and the storyline was akin to a poor TV soap opera. The winding alleyways, the crowded shops, the smells of the Bangladeshi markets never became alive nor did the small city ways of Rochester. It is an OK novel, but nothing special.
But something happened along the way and these to characters -- as well as the huge host of supporting characters -- seemed to become increasingly less compelling and less believable. Moreover, the plot line revolving around Amina's father introduced into the second half of the book seemed unnecessary and reduced the act of reading to a slog, which is ironic as I believe much of this part of the story was intended to be suspenseful.
At the end of the book, I didn't really care how any of the storylines resolved themselves or about any of the characters; I was mostly just glad to be finished. And given the strong start to the book, this result was particularly disappointing.
While the character of Amina is fairly well developed -- you understand her motivations and desires -- but you still get the feeling that she is not quite real. In some ways, her husband's cousin Kim seems more real than Amina. The husband, George, is just a sketch. The dialogue seems lifeless. There is only one place in the entire novel where the exchange between George and Amina seemed to have some blood and some life. (spoiler ahead). Amina and George have been married in the US but they have not been married in a mosque or the International Center as they had planned. It has just been allowed to slide. Amina is working on a plan to bring her parents to Rochester but it will be eight months until they can get their Visas and make the journey. Amina decides that she and George will be married at the International Center when her parents arrive so that they can be there and witness it. Until then, she tells George that she will no longer sleep with him. (There are other reasons for her deciding on this defacto separation but revealing them would give away too much of the story). George is reluctantly willing to comply but at one point he protests the arrangement, "For God's sake, we're married." Amina responds "Your God. Not mine."
Reading "The Newlyweds", I recalled another novel with a similar theme: Com Toibin's "Brooklyn." In this novel a young woman travels from Ireland to Brooklyn, not to marry but to find work. There are many similarities in the themes but "Brooklyn" is a far better novel. Read that one instead of this one.