Sunday, May 22, 2011

My New American Life and Other Thoughts

My latest review appeared in the 5/15 issue of LJ. I'll never get over seeing my name in print. Oh vanity, thy name is woman!

What a surprise I got the other day when I went into work and found not one, but three envelopes from LJ on my desk. I almost went into panic mode thinking that I would have to review three titles at the same time but, no, they had sent me hard copies of older novels that I had reviewed for them. In one, Swamplandia, there was a full color print out of publisher Knopf's advertising for Karen Russell's novel which will soon be out in paperback.

I was blown away to see myself quoted at the top of the page and was so busy patting myself on the back that I failed to notice that the title of the book was spelled wrong! My former manager, Linda Holland, with whom I share these things, spotted it immediately. Once an editor, always and editor.

As I've mentioned before, I'm in the process of whittling down my choices for next season's book discussions and I'm afraid I've just eliminated Francine Prose's My New American Life. I am enjoying the book but, on some level, I just don't think it will work for my group. Ms. Prose is noted for her many award nominated works (Blue Angel, a look at sexual politics on college campuses, A Changed Man, about the Neo-Nazi movement) which tend to be cutting edge, politically timely, and funny in a tongue in cheek type of way. This one is no exception.

Our heroine, Lula, is an Albanian immigrant who has lucked into a boring but cushy job as companion to Zeke, only teenage son of a Walter Mitty clone whose wife left him on Christmas Eve a year ago. Zeke's dad, Mr. Stanley, has a friend who's a renowned immigration attorney, currently working with detainees at Gitmo.
 He has managed to streamline Lula's green card, knowing full well that her entire application is a beautifully fabricated story. Lula, you see, has a penchant for fiction writing, a talent that will prove advantageous to Zeke later in the story.

Prose pointedly pushes one of her themes, that we Americans take our largess and freedoms for granted, through Lula's observations and comparisons between the life she's living in Northern New Jersey and the one she left behind. I like Prose's politics, always have, but she rather bangs us over the head with the juxtapostions of Lula's memories of Eastern Bloc justice and the Bush/Cheney policy of torture and rendition that we see through the eyes of atty. Settebello.

 Zeke, on the one hand comes across as a lonely, disconnected young man with few friends, and on the other, as a spoiled, disrespectful brat. Still, in her way, Lula loves him and she has his back. To me, he's the most interesting and realistic member of this strange clan.

Lula's longing for a taste of home comes in the person of her  missing friend Dunia. Thinking that she's been kidnapped and sold into prostitution, Lula is shocked and somewhat disappointed to find that Dunia has sold her soul to a wealthy plastic surgeon for the unlimited use of credit cards and a handsome young driver. A little too cliched?

Then there's the three Albanian "brothers" who show up unannounced at Mr. Stanley's. Why there, why now? Why do they ask Lula to hide a gun in her underwear drawer? Why on earth does she trust them?

I think it's the character of Lula herself that is giving me trouble. I'm 250 pages in and only just now beginning to feel any empathy for, or belief in her. Is it because, as she says herself, after telling us so many lies, we won't believe her when she tells the truth? Or is Prose getting at something deeper? Is our "new" American life really so different from whence we all came?


Infobabe said...

Last month I settled on my books for next year and today I put them in order. The group picked the theme: 1st book of a series. Anyway...No matter how careful I am in reviewing the titles there will always be a book that turns out to be more sexy than I would have liked and my group LOOOOOVES to make me blush. Gotta love my old folks!!!! :)

Sallyb said...

Ha, Laura, that's great. We just finalized ours for Sept. through May. I'll send you the finished product next week. Have a good holiday!