These five stories follow young women living far from home, coping with new and often unfamiliar rules, as they confront the compelling circumstances of adult love. The rich, unforgettable tales in this collection, set in Southeast Asia and on the Indian subcontinent, showcase a writer of exceptional talent, one of today's most gifted and exciting young voices.
Freudenberger saw her first story, "Lucky Girls," published in the New Yorker's 2001 debut fiction issue and subsequently received a reported six-figure sum to round out the collection with a bunch more (at that time unwritten) works. The gamble has paid off, at least from a critical perspective: the five long stories in this collection are thoughtful and entertaining. Most take place in Asia and feature Americans living abroad. In the title piece, a young American painter recalls her long affair with a married Indian man. The man has died unexpectedly, and the story traces the development of the narrator's antagonistic yet moving relationship with the mother of her late lover. "The Orphan" is a witty story of a middle-aged couple who, along with their college-age son, go to Thailand for Christmas to visit their daughter and break the news of their impending divorce. The daughter, who works at a Bangkok hospital for orphaned AIDS babies, finds her parents benighted and so... Western, while her brother announces that he belongs to the Cool Rich Kids club, whose members seek to give their parents' money away ("it's this chance to endorse the more radical causes that people your age wouldn't support"). In "The Tutor," a romance blossoms between an Indian SAT coach and a Prada-wearing American teenager living in Bombay who wants nothing more than to get into UC-Berkeley. Many of these tales concern the slow birth and disintegration of romantic relationships, although some lack pull, due to their one-dimensional characters. Freudenberger is more inventive and piquant when she probes characters' relationships to their adopted homelands-which, she shows, are often more passionate and grounded than their ties to the people in their lives.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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August 31, 2006
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Excerpt from Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger
I had often imagined meeting Mrs. Chawla, Arun's mother. It would be in a restaurant, and I would be wearing a sophisticated blue suit that my mother had sent me soon after I moved to India, and Mrs. Chawla would not be able to keep herself from admiring it. Of course, in those fantasies Arun was always with me.
As it happened, Mrs. Chawla appeared early one morning, in a car with a driver, unannounced. I was sitting at the kitchen table in my painting shorts, having a cup of tea. There was no time to straighten up the living room or take a shower. I went into the bedroom, where Arun and I had often slept, and put on a dress--wrinkled, but at least it was clean. I put my cup in the sink and set a pot of water on the stove. Then I watched through the window. Mrs. Chawla had got out of the car and was standing with her arms crossed, instructing her driver how to park. The car moved forward, backed up, and then inched forward again.
Mrs. Chawla shaded her eyes to look at the backyard: the laundry line with my clothes hanging on it, the grackles perched on the telephone pole, the pile of soft, rotting bricks. I had a feeling that had come to seem familiar in the eight months since Arun had died, a kind of panic that made me want to stand very still.
The bell rang.
"Hello, Mrs. Chawla," I said. "I'm glad you came." From her handwriting, I had expected someone more imposing. She was several inches shorter than I was, and heavy. Her hair was long and dyed black, with a dramatic white streak in the front; and she was wearing a navy blue salwar-kameez, the trousers of which were tapered at the ankles, in a style that was just becoming fashionable.
"Yes," she said. "I've been meaning to. I can't stay long." She gave me a funny smile, as if I weren't what she had expected, either.
"Will you have some tea?" I offered.
"Do you have tea?" she asked, sounding surprised. She looked at the drawn blinds in the living room. There was a crumpled napkin next to the salt and pepper shakers on the table, where I had eaten dinner the night before, and which I had asked Puja, the servant, to clean. Now that it was summer, cockroaches had started coming out of the walls.
"Please don't go to any trouble," she said. "Puja can do it--is she in the kitchen?" Arun had hired Puja to do my cooking and cleaning; when he told me she had worked for his mother, I'd hoped that Mrs. Chawla was making a friendly gesture. In fact, Puja was a terrible housekeeper and a severely limited cook. She lived in a room at the back of the house, with her husband and four little girls; at night I often saw her crouched in the backyard, making chapatis on a pump stove with a low blue flame.
Mrs. Chawla walked confidently toward the kitchen, calling Puja in a proprietary voice, and I realized that Arun's mother had been in my house before. She could have come any number of times, in the afternoons, when I taught art at the primary school or went out shopping in Khan Market. Puja would have let her in without hesitation.
When Mrs. Chawla reappeared, she scrutinized the chairs, before choosing to sit on the sofa. She smiled, revealing a narrow space between her teeth. "Where exactly are you from?" she asked.
"My father lives in Boston, but my mother is in California now," I told her.
"Ah," said Mrs. Chawla softly, as if that explained everything. "An American family. That must make it difficult to decide where to return to."
I had no plans to return, as I should have explained. "It rules out Boston and California," I said instead.
Mrs. Chawla didn't smile.
My brother, I added, was getting married in Boston in July.
"And you like the bride?" she asked.