With the publication of Lucky Girls, her first collection of short stories, Nell Freudenberger has been lauded by the disparate likes of The New York Times Book Review and Elle magazine as one of the most promising young writers on the literary scene.
Before Freudenberger, now 28, interned at The New Yorker and was later featured in their "Summer Fiction Issue"--she taught English in New Delhi and Bangkok, deriving the cultural context of her stories from the experience. These narratives of the young American bourgeois abroad are primarily occupied with personal angst, but with an excellent hand at form, Freudenberger examines her lucky girls, hothouse transplants equipped with trustfunds and Prada backpacks, as they recline in the Asian landscape. Freudenberger is quick to acknowledge what role her heroines play in the larger cultural scene. In fact, the protagonist in the title story is seduced by an older married man after being taken to task for her borrowed sari and mehndi-covered hands.
'Oh, yes,' I said, indicating my clothes. 'Very cosmopolitan.' 'I wasn't going to ask.' 'You don't like them.' I pouted. I was already a little drunk. 'They're nice clothes,' he said. 'I just don't like Western girls in Indian clothes, but perhaps I'm behind the times.' 'Why?' Arun paused. 'Because clothes mean something here. Historically. And when you wear them it's for romance, glamour--you don't mean anything.' I starred at the patterns on my hands. Suddenly, it seemed as if Gita's sisters had played a practical joke on me, like dressing up a cat or a dog."
If we are meant to be thinking about these narratives with some reflection on underlying political dynamics--and how can any story about cross-cultural experience not address it--then Freudenberger is bold, as the extracultural mores her characters most often clash with are tied to sexuality. At least since the Victorians, sexual mores have been integral to the racial dogma that were used to control indigenous people, labor class settlers and women.
But it's really impossible to scrutinize whether Freudenberger's character are indulging in fantasies of exoticism, striking a blow against colonial structures, or just plain fucking. Whatever the meaning, the characters do appear to be enjoying themselves:
It was six o'clock, and I recognized the whiskey-colored light on the white sheets: Arun pinning my wrists down with his hands, holding me tight beneath him so I couldn't move. It was not like with other people he took it seriously, as if these were necessary things we did."
The truly interesting cultural exchange in these stories however, occurs outside the bedroom. When Arun dies unexpectedly, the lucky girl is left to confront his mother--and later, his wife and children--alone.
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."
Freudenberger's dialog can be full of nuance and flavor, and appears most strikingly realistic when her female characters are at each others' throats. Though the lucky girls seem somewhat conscious of their fortunate position, it is the most indulged of those, a highschool student raised in Paris and buying her way into Berkley, who strikes the soundest note of defense for her kind, making a metaphor out of a Ray Bradbury story.
'I know that story,' Zubin said. "With the kids on Venus. It rains for seven years, and then the sun comes out and they lock the girl in the closet. Why do they lock her up?' 'Because she's from Earth. She's the only one who's seen it.' 'The sun.' Julia nodded. 'They're all jealous.'"
It feels almost like a plea for justice--a chastisement for those who'd judge anyone to harshly, just for being lucky. Used and abused, here lies the irony of the title--maybe, these girls aren't so lucky after all. It's difficult to feel much sympathy for them though, as the cultures of Thailand and India tend to stand only as backdrop to these all too typical conflicts. Stories about taking the SATs, losing ones virginity, and parents getting divorced are more fit for the latest installment in the Sweet Valley High series; they are not particularly challenging subject matter for a serious writer, or reader. There are obvious touches of the juvenilia in her work. Take the moment of seduction:
'What is this?' I stepped close to Arun and took the tiny amulet in my hand. 'It was a gift from my wife.' I let go of the amulet. 'I think I might take a shower,' I told him. Arun didn't say anything but as I turned away he grabbed my wrist. 'I'm sorry,' he said. 'Sorry for what?' 'I'm afraid I can't stand that, listening to the shower.' 'The walls are very thick. I don't think you'll hear it.'" Arun was stern. 'I refuse to let you wake my niece, with your profligate American water use. I insist that if you are going to shower in the middle of the night you use the one in my room.' Although he was teasing me, he let me know that it would be silly for me to pretend that this wasn't exactly what I wanted."
The romance reads like a typical twenty-something fantasy about being seduced by an older, exotic man--and for that reason it feels unbelievable. It is only because Freudenberger exhibits real talent as a writer--particularly in her form and ability to create emotional tension--that her choice of subject matter is disappointing.
In her final, and most masterful story, "Letters From the Last Bastion", she proves herself capable of projecting beyond the experience of the bourgeois abroad. The story spans the experience of a working-class lucky girl and a middle-aged author who served in Vietnam. Their lives seem unrelated at first, but as the tension in the story builds the link becomes clear and places an interesting twist on the narrator's position. Here, she really shows her grasp on form, layering perspective after perspective on the narrative voice.
It will be interesting to see how Freudenberger's form and voice expand. For now, the consensus appears right, Lucky Girls is a good first show.