Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger Reviewed by Bonny Finberg
Nell Freudenberger's first story ever to be published, the title story of this collection, was chosen as one of four by "debut writers" for the New Yorker 2001 Summer Fiction Issue. Her first book, a collection of skillfully wrought short stories, is impressive in its insight, honesty, and observation.
Four of the stories take place in Asia, the main characters being young women, in their early 20's, enjoying the privileges of their native country and tender age. The only exception is the 17-year-old first person narrator of the last story, "Letter from the Last Bastion." She is the unacknowledged daughter of a famous writer teaching at an American university and, despite her relatively "under" privileged status, raised by a single working mother, is on her way to optometry school. When Freudenberger writes from the point of view of characters, closer in age and experience, she has a sturdy grip of her characters. She portrays the parents of her characters with a sharp knife, exposing a little more than expertly carved stereotypes.
For example, when drawing the character of the 17-year-old girl who writes the letter forming the last story we are told that her single-working mother chose to become impregnated by the college professor so that her baby would have his genes, has worked hard all of her daughter's life in order to save for her college tuition. All of the following sections of the letter concerning the mother take place in the past, when she was young and tender and impressed by older intellectual professors. This reader couldn't help but wonder about the unfolding of her life, the adult this mother became.
"The Orphan" is told through the mother, Alice's, point of view. She has gone to her daughter Mandy's rescue after an hysterical phone call from Bankok, where she volunteers in an orphanage, claiming her boyfriend has beaten and raped her. Some moments evoke recognizable familial dynamics in a certain class in pre-, modern-, post- and contemporary-modern America. In this, Freudenberger displays a Cheever-esque intimacy with the failings of privilege and comfort. The existentially challenged dealing with too much of a good thing. Alice fantasizes about reconciling with her amicably estranged husband, who has taken up with a much younger woman. Maybe they could adopt one of the orphans and start allover again. On a visit to the orphanage, she is invited by Mandy to hold an unhealthy looking baby, who spits up. She recalls the Bankok mall where they'd shared a family lunch, where she could ride the elevator and be in clean, familiar surroundings. We come back to her at the end in a tense moment in a Bankok hotel in the ambivalent conjugal bed. For Alice, the combined estrangement and familiarity is deep and painful, the thread connecting them fragile. These scenes seem to arise from a daughter's eyes having observed the mysterious relationship between the two who raised her, interpreting it through her own experience of a broken heart, though most of the people in these stories get their hearts broken and one gets the sense that they will all get their hearts broken eventually.
There is nothing inherently bad about being born rich, no guarantees one way or the other whether privilege will lead to fame, fortune and bad behavior instead of enlightened, socially responsibility; anymore than being poor ensures progeny who are insensitive, undereducated oafs. We know this is possible on both sides of the tax cuts. If we refuse to prejudge people, based on something they were born to, we have to do it all the way.
Anyone looking for the exotic, hedonistic or philosophical exploits of the Spiritually Driven, drug induced or otherwise, will be disappointed. The razor's edge is blunted, here, for internal use. These stories of infidelity, rebellion, albeit in the form of working in an orphanage in Thailand, not hash smuggling. A teenager loses her virginity with her tutor, not the leader of a Shiva cult. Each character is struggling with being the "other," whether through the initial shock of arrival or being a long term ex-patriot. None of these characters go native. In fact, even when decrying in adolescent exasperation that her parents just don't get it, telling her mother that when her boyfriend hit, then raped her, maybe, well just maybe, it turned her on, this is still a naive coed from Connecticut after all. Many have arrived at this sexual awakening on college campuses all over the U.S of A. There's something patriotic in these ostensible ex-pats living in some American version of the Raj.