My New American Life: A Novel Hardcover – Apr 18 2011
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“An illuminating and ultimately upbeat look at America’s immigrant situation that all fiction readers will enjoy.” (Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal)
“Prose is dazzling in her sixteenth book of spiky fiction, a fast-flowing, bittersweet, brilliantly satirical immigrant story that subtly embodies the cultural complexity and political horrors of the Balkans and Bush-Cheney America.” (Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review))
“Utterly charming. Savvy about the shady practices of both US immigration authorities and immigrants themselves... Entertaining, light yet not trivial, a joy to read.” (Lionel Shriver)
“Prose’s characters in MY NEW AMERICAN LIFE are complex and brilliantly drawn (culturally distinct but without the usual clichés).” (Simon Van Booy, Bomb Magazine)
“Nothing is beyond the artistic reach of Francine Prose” (Shelf Awareness)
“A tangy mixture of satire and sentiment. . . . Ms. Prose uses her heroine’s outside status to make a lot of funny . . . observations about the cosseted life of well-to-do Americans.” (Michiko Kakutani, New York Times)
“Prose . . . is, as always, sharply intelligent.” (NPR.org)
“Prose succeeds by transforming anxiety into compassionit’s a little lever that gets tripped when we truly imagine what another person feels.” (Los Angeles Times)
“There has been a lot written about the Bush and Cheney days, but rarely from such an amusing perspective . . . at once honest, complicated, sexy, funny andultimatelyuplifting.” (BookPage)
“A superb novel . . . a wickedly entertaining read. . . . Prose is on top of her game . . . the fluidity of the prose surpassing, I think, her work in Blue Angel.” (The Millions)
“Prose spins the many straws of American culture into a golden tale, shimmering with hilarious, if blistering, satire.” (Helen Simonson, Washington Post)
“My New American Life ishappilyvintage Prose: cheerfully pessimistic, smart, funny, with characters unnervingly spot-on in their stages of outrage, denial, malaise or disillusionment.” (Miami Herald)
“A fast-moving novel . . . [that] brings together cultural satire, mystery, a psychosexual thriller, and political outrage. . . . Exceptionally entertaining, fun to read in its sentences, incidents, scenes.” (Michael Dirda, New York Review of Books)
“She’s a perfect observer of American life in the opening decade of the 21st century. . . . Wry . . . witty . . . a book that brims with smart surprises.” (Ron Carlson, New York Times Book Review)
“Prose is in her sweet spot as a nimble chronicler of contemporary culture.” (Entertainment Weekly)
“In My New American Life, Francine Prose cracks open that old chestnut about the immigrant reinvention experience and injects, yes, new life into it.” (USA Today)
“Fun and funny,...a satire of immigration and its discontents...” (San Francisco Chronicle)
“Prose’s real aim is to characterize and caricature modern American life, mostly in a gentle way that will leave readers smarter than they were before...” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
From the Back Cover
Lula, a twenty-six-year-old Albanian woman living surreptitiously in New York City on an expiring tourist visa, hopes to make a better life for herself in America. When she lands a job as caretaker to Zeke, a rebellious high school senior in suburban New Jersey, it seems that the security, comfort, and happiness of the American dream may finally be within reach. Her new boss, Mister Stanley, an idealistic college professor turned Wall Street executive, assumes that Lula is a destitute refugee of the Balkan wars. He enlists his childhood friend Don Settebello, a hotshot lawyer who prides himself on defending political underdogs, to straighten out Lula's legal situation. In true American fashion, everyone gets what he wants and feels good about it.
But things take a more sinister turn when Lula's Albanian "brothers" show up in a brand-new black Lexus SUV. Hoodie, Leather Jacket, and the Cute One remind her that all Albanians are family, but what they ask of her is no small favor. Lula's new American life suddenly becomes more complicated as she struggles to find her footing as a stranger in a strange new land. Is it possible that her new American life is not so different from her old Albanian one?
Set in the aftermath of 9/11, My New American Life offers a vivid, darkly humorous, bitingly real portrait of a particular moment in history, when a nation's dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies, and fear. Beneath its high comic surface, the novel is a more serious consideration of immigration, of what it was like to live through the Bush-Cheney years, and of what it means to be an American.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
She knows much not only about America, but also about the countries where the political refugees came from. Even though a worse author could have given way to a comparison between countries, coming to the conclusion that everywhere bread has only two crusts, Prose understands the main differences; the down-to-earth common sense, as well as the "brain-washing" of an immigrant, and on the other hand, sometimes the naivete of the Americans.
Someone has to record the society, the atmosphere, the beliefs, the mistakes.
This authoress is very entertaining and reading her is always an event for a reader.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
It's October 2005, a low point of the Bush presidency, with others as yet unimagined, ahead. Half-Muslim, half-Christian Lula has just secured her work permit, a glimpse of her green card glittering on the horizon. She's situated uneasily in a sterile New Jersey McMansion 10 miles from Manhattan. Its owner, Stanley Larch ("Mister Stanley" to Lula), is a former economics professor turned disgruntled Wall Street banker. He's hired her to keep an eye on Zeke, his sullen, vampire-obsessed teenage son whose taste in attire runs to black and body piercings. Their wife and mother, Ginger, abandoned the family for the Norwegian fjords ("she wanted to start over, somewhere clean and white") the previous Christmas Eve, suffering from something her husband vaguely describes as "mental health issues." Hearing what sounds like sobbing from Mister Stanley's room one night, she wonders, "Who wouldn't cry? No wife, no fun, no girlfriends, a job he hated, a son who seemed to despise him."
Out of boredom, Lula turns to writing stories based on Albanian folk legends she reshapes into magical realist-inflected tales about her family's life that Mister Stanley naively believes demonstrate real literary talent. But Lula's quotidian existence is disrupted when three young Albanian men she nicknames the "Cute One," "Hoodie" and "Leather Jacket," appear at the Larch residence in a black Lexus SUV. She's attracted to Alvo ("the Cute One") who has been in the country since 1990 and claims vaguely to be working "renovating supermarkets." Her feelings oscillate between desire for him and the sense she's dealing with a character whose danger hasn't yet fully revealed itself. Though Alvo and his companions inject a note of menace into the story, it never rises to a level where we fear any serious harm will befall Prose's likable characters. The one scene of near violence, involving Lula, Alvo and the hapless Ginger Larch, is played mostly for comic effect.
Mister Stanley's good friend and Lula's attorney is Don Settebello, an immigration lawyer who blends a highly successful practice with an idealistic streak that has him representing Guantanamo detainees, bitterly complaining all the while of their mistreatment. He's the voice of what Prose suggests is the fading American conscience, suppressed by lingering fears of terrorist attacks, real or imagined.
Contrasted with Lula's life is the one her Albanian comrade Dunia has fashioned on American soil. Lula discovers her that friend hasn't been kidnapped and sold into Asian sex slavery, as she had feared. Instead, she has landed herself a husband (a New Jersey plastic surgeon named Steve) and has settled with alacrity into the role of the jaded suburban housewife ("It's like living under Communism. The shopping is better. The sex is worse."). Their trip to the Short Hills Mall to outfit Lula for a Christmas Eve date with Alvo is a sharp send-up of American consumerism. Prose's satiric gifts are put to equally fine use in her portrayal of the obligatory upper middle-class parent/child college tour and in the scenes of Lula's encounter with the more Dickensian aspects of our criminal justice system.
Some of the purest pleasures of Prose's novel are Lula's sharp insights into our contemporary life. "But America was like Communism and post-Communism combined," she remarks. "You weren't supposed to be materialistic until you got successful, after which it was practically your duty to flaunt it in everyone's face." Commenting on the contrast between a Congressman confessing an adulterous affair and the president denying reports of torture in Iraq, she notes, "It was interesting how everyone lied and only the adulterers got caught." With her sly wit, Prose holds a mirror up to both our shortcomings and our occasionally endearing oddities, giving us an opportunity to see ourselves with fresh, unblinking eyes.
Prose's novel is anything but the classic immigrant saga. But what unites Lula's story with those is her ample tool kit of survival skills, her determination to succeed in her adopted homeland, and her optimism that tomorrow and the day after that will be better than today. Those personality traits make her an appealing protagonist and her story one of unalloyed enjoyment.
--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
I was also disturbed by some vaguely homophobic comments throughout the book, such as Lula's unchallenged assumption that 20 years in prison would turn a defendant gay. While I did enjoy the glimpse into Lula's world, and the difficulty of her position as a young, not-yet-greencarded Albanian woman, I did not find that the book brought me to any understanding beyond stereotype. Very disappointing.
Lula, an Albanian refugee, is living with Mister Stanley and his high-school senior son whose wife and mother respectively had left them abruptly last Christmas. Lula's role is just to keep the lonely, friendless Zeke company after school until his father comes home and the two of them can engage in their painfully awkward relationship, dancing around the void left by the woman of the house. With a lot of time on her hands, Lula, who conveniently speaks perfect English with a vocabulary that only the top 1% of American master, is content to mark time while Mister Stanley's friend, Don, arranges for her work visa. In time, hopefully, there would be the Green Card that would allow her to make USA her home. She is comfortable in the house and other than some vague worry about her friend who might have disappeared into a trafficking ring but shows up as living the rich life only twenty miles away, there is no worry. Neither does Lula, at twenty-seven, possess a vision of a future and shows no ambition for a career or love.
There is little that is not American about Lula other than she doesn't know how to drive, a fact made poignant because her parents were killed in Albania as a result of her father's reckless driving--and not in an act of war as her listeners prefer to hear when she regales the small circle with her stories, told both orally and in writing. She produces stories as distraction, to prove to Mister Stanley and Don that she is using her ample free time wisely.
If staying in America is her motivation, and if Lula is as intelligent and educated as Prose makes her to be, it is doubly surprising that when some strange Albanian thugs appear at her door, she not only immediately invites them in, but agrees to keep their gun. There is much at stake for her, yet the reader sees no hesitation on her part nor any motivation to risk it all, including the trust of Mister Stanley and Zeke. Her infatuation with one of the thugs comes as an afterthought, as is her sense of camaraderie with these fellow ex-pats, and none is particularly strong to suggest that it can make up for what she stands to lose.
Who more than Francine Prose, who also teaches creative writing, knows Chekhov's suggestion if you show a gun in the first act, it better be fired later. Yet, like the rest of this undramatic story, when the gun reappears, it has no real affect on the events. It doesn't drive the action of that scene--just as there is no dramatic action anywhere in the novel. (e.g., Zeke driver's permit and his father allow him to drive to the nearest supermarket every afternoon with Lula in the passenger seat. The reader is often in the car during these boring excursions. Yet one day when they find the supermarket closed for renovations and Lula agrees to continue to a more distant supermarket, there are no consequences. The author simply dropped the ball on one more event that could have become interesting. Otherwise, why bother telling us about the closed supermarket?)
In another tool that Prose would have frowned upon had it appeared in her students' work or in a book she reviewed, Prose uses coincidence to divert the story into another path. The meeting of Don's former girlfriend when Lula visits Zeke's college gives Lula a new career path as an Albanian-English court interpreter, but that too, is not milked for all its worth because she only visits the court to learn that the subject of her infatuation is a criminal, a fact that both the reader and she had known from the moment he showed up at Mister Stanley's door. She doesn't even become his court interpreter, which might have revived this otherwise lethargic story.
Lula keeps throwing "Little known facts about Albania," and adds that all facts about Albania are little known. That humor is one of the brighter sayings of Lula as Prose introduces the reader to some of the realities of life in Albania, not much different from any other former communist regime.
As the novel droned on, holding my attention only because of Prose's prose and reputation, I was certain that there would be a payoff at the end with some huge revelation or some twist that would make this long, boring story worth the time. That did not happen, as the ending, like the rest of the book is not believable and left me cold.
"Lula knew that some Americans cheered every time INS agents raided factories and shoved dark little chicken-packagers into the backs of trucks. She'd seen the guys on Fox News calling for every immigrant except German supermodels and Japanese baseball players to be deported, no questions asked."
Lula wants desperately to grab a hold of the American dream, but her job as a nanny to an 17-year-old young man leaves her bored and stuck in the suburbs with no friends and nothing to do. Prose makes you feel her stifling suffocation. When the wanna-be Sopranos Albanians show up and ask her to "hold on to" a gun for them, Lula does as she's asked, even though she knows this could lead to trouble for her and her employer and her deportation. Yet, strangely, she cannot say no to them; and besides, it's a little excitement.
I usually identify with at least one of the characters in a novel that I read, but I could not identify with anyone in this book, yet that did not stop me from enjoying it. I live in New York City, a city that runs because of its immigrant population, and this book gave me a new perspective on the people who leave their families behind to start a new life elsewhere.
Lula misses her homeland; she cries
"for her once-beautiful homeland now in the hands of toxic dumpers and sex traffickers and money launderers. She cried for missing her country, for not missing it, for having nothing to miss. She cried for the loneliness and uncertainty of her life among strangers who could still change her mind and make her go home."
All of the characters are interesting: sad sacks Mister Stanley and his friend Don (both divorced and lost), young Zeke (I just wanted to hug him and tell him it will be all right), the Albanians (a riot!) and Lula's friend Dunia, who hits the immigrant lottery by finding a rich man to marry.
There are so many fantastic scenes- at the restaurant where Lula gets a celebratory citizenship dinner with Zeke, his dad, Don and his caustic daughter, Lula's date with Alvo, the college trip- all are sharp and memorable.
Prose successfully combines the comic and the tragic, and throws in some politics, like Don's work with detainees at Guantanemo. Her portrait of American life soon after 9/11 (through Lula's eyes) is vivid and thought-provoking.