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Lucky Girls

Lucky Girls, Nell Freudenberger's collection of five long stories, is a book that I almost didn't buy. I had read "The Tutor" in Granta, and "Lucky Girls" in The New Yorker. But they were very good stories, and I was curious to see what else Ms Freudenberger had produced.

As it happens, I've been reading Mavis Gallant, the Canadian writer long resident at Paris, and comparison of the two writers is unavoidable, because both write about expatriation with a similar achronicity, looping forward and back in time and creating irreducibly complex - and therefore quite lifelike - portraits. Their prose styles are different; Ms Gallant writes the kind of dense, long paragraphs that nobody under forty seems to have the patience to read. This isn't to say that Ms Freudenberger is breezy. But there is a great deal more direct conversation in her work, and ellipsis, or a sense of the incompleteness of things, is prominent.

Three of the tales in Lucky Girls are narrated in the first person by young women, but the tone of the other two, narrated by an omniscient third person who also, as it happens, is a young woman, is not appreciably different. Ms Freudenberger's voice is calm and intelligent; she notes psychological states with a clinical dispassion. But this only invites the reader to do the responding. The following is the entirety of a brief flashback from "Outside the Eastern Gate"; the narrator is recalling her childhood, when her late mother was already showing signs of disintegration.

I had been looking at The Secret Garden; my mother had appeared in her black pajamas; and then someone had taken her away from me. It was Vivian who had led her away, her arm around my mother's waist, my mother's head resting in the hollow between Vivian's shoulder and her neck. I was crying.
"Stop that," Vivian said.
"She can't," my mother said.
Vivian looked back at me, not meanly. "Yes she can."
And I found that once there was no one in the room, I could.

We aren't told very much here, so we must look hard at what is shown. We know (from other passages) that the mother fears that her daughter is going to take after her, but would also be secretly pleased, as if her instability were a special genetic legacy. We know that Vivian, her mother's best friend but certainly not, at this point in the story, her father's, is a level-headed, unmarried photographer. But we don't know why the little girl is crying. At the book that she has been reading? At her mother's appearance in the room? By Vivian's taking her mother away? Perhaps the child herself couldn't answer the question. The important thing is the pleasure she takes, very obliquely expressed, in being able to do something that Vivian insists she can do - restrain herself. Chillingly, the goal, the desideratum, here is the suppression of emotion. The importance of living up to Vivian is a powerful but deliberately backstaged motif throughout the story; the front of the stage is occupied by the unsound mother of the girl's childhood, and the equally debilitated father of her maturity. (In the befuddlement of Alzheimer's, he has come to depend on Vivian.) Ms Freudenberger's manner is mystifying as it can be without making mystification the point of her fiction. We may not know what is going on in the background, but we're convinced that something is.

Mysteries are solved in "The Tutor," a romance without the romance that is also the most ambitious story in Lucky Girls. Zubin, a brilliant young man from Bombay, has pursued three degrees from Western universities, and acquired two. On the verge of writing a doctoral dissertation at Columbia, he succumbed to homesickness and returned to India (and, naturally, his parents' disappointment). He would like to be a poet, but his time is spent coaching students for their SATs. He has been doing this for four years when he gets his first American student, a lovely girl named Julia. Julia is bright enough to write her own essay for Berkeley - she was born in San Francisco and wants to return - but a combination of privilege and anomie leads her to ask Zubin to write it for her. We read this very well-written story to find out, naturally, whether Zubin and Julia will have sex, and, also quite naturally, who will write the essay, and the author does not thwart us. Zubin and Julia like one another well enough, and, over time, might become friends. But there is no question of love. We don't catch either character dreaming moodily of the other, although it's fair to say that a certain amount of flirtatious scheming goes on. Instead of romance and heavy breathing, Ms Freudenberger gives us details, first of Zubin's career and then of Julia's iffy background - her father is perhaps a criminal. The picture of Zubin as a more or less impoverished student at Harvard, sitting at his roommate's lacrosse table, is both dignified and acute:  

Jason Bennet was a nice guy, and athlete from Weston, Massachusetts. He took Zubin to eat at the lacrosse table, where he looked not just foreign but as if he were another species - he weighed at least ten kilos less than the smallest guy and felt hundreds of years older. He felt as if he were surrounded by enormous and powerful children. They were hungry, and then they were restless; they ran around and around in circles, and then they were tired. Five nights a week they'd pledged to keep sober; on the other two they drank systematically until they passed out.

Zubin has no desire to live this sporting life, but he relishes its extravagance. There is something extravagant about Julia, too. Before Bombay, she lived in an apartment near the Seine, with Louis XVI chairs and Iranian carpets. But she has since learned that this comfort cannot be taken for granted, and that, finally, is why she wants to escape to Berkeley: there, no doubt, she'll be able to make her own way. She has the habits of one who can take things for granted, but she has also begun to develop a wariness, and this is what motivates her to learn from Zubin. It also, perhaps, prevents her from looking down on him as an Indian. She is too busy missing her own home, too determined to return. I ought to point out that almost everything that I've said here is conjecture.

The title story is a triste account of how an old Indian woman of good position helps the young American lover of her late son to give up and go home. The young woman, who is never named, came to India to take part in a college friend's wedding, and fell in love with a married man more than twenty years her senior. She returns to India and lives in a house that the man finds for her. Presently a letter arrives from the man's mother, advising the young woman that the man's wife is much more appealing to her son than the American could ever be. When, after five years, the man succumbs to dengue fever, the young woman is prevented from visiting him at the hospital. After his death, however, his mother begins paying the woman visits, and they strike up a difficult and reluctant mutual admiration society. It is not friendship, and it ends when Mrs Chawla responds to the young woman's insistence that she ought to have been allowed to visit Arun.

There was a brightness in her voice when she answered, a gold wire of fury.
"You didn't belong there," she said. "Nobody would've known what you were."

And the young woman accepts that no matter how much she likes India, she is never going to be welcome there - not, at least, by the people whose welcome she would value.

"The Orphan" is the most conventional story. Told from the point of view of a middle-aged woman whose husband has left her, it has a sardonic quality that reminded me of Alison Lurie, who might very well have dreamed up a similar tale. Alice, in New York, is so shaken by a call from her daughter, Mandy, in Bangkok, that she wants to rouse her husband, Jeff, to get on a plane immediately, but Mandy insists that everyone stick to existing plans, which call for a family visit at Christmas. Mandy claimed to have been raped, but once her parents arrive, she changes her story. Her brother, Josh, also on the trip, has reached that stage in late adolescence at which one knows that one's parents are wrong about everything, and especially ignorant about how the world works. Alice takes the beating that her children administer with good grace, helplessly pleased at one point to find them sitting together in their pajamas watching Thai MTV and drinking out the minibar, but her feelings about Jeff are all over the place.

Alice's friends said that it was insane to go on a trip with Jeff. The problem was that when she talked to Jeff - they didn't see each other, but they talked about practical things on the phone - nothing was different. Sometimes, if it had been weeks without any contact, she would start to agree with her friends, and then Jeff would call, with some news about Mandy or Josh, or something to do with taxes or insurance, or she would have a question about the house, or her investments, and within ten minutes they would be making the same kinds of jokes they had always made together. She wasn't dumb enough to think that this meant they should be together, but it was hard to believe that he was any kind of threat. He was Jeff. It was hard to believe that there was some abstract, hidden danger bigger than the two of them.

And indeed, there isn't. The climax of the story occurs when both children walk away after learning that their parents have been split up for months without telling them. But the evening before, Jeff himself has virtually raped Mandy, right in front of Alice and Josh. He forcibly detains her when she tries to leave the hotel room and go home; there is even a little tussle. Nonetheless, Alice goes to bed with him when the children leave. He is not a danger, but almost worse, a figure in Alice's landscape of vaguely sordid banality.

Mandy works at an orphanage for AIDS babies and has a disagreeable boyfriend. Josh, a student at Colby College, claims to belong to a Cool Rich Kids club - to which his father, appalled, doesn't thing he has any business belonging. But as far as Josh is concerned, Jeff, a successful libel lawyer, is rich enough - and, of course, selfish. Ms Freudenberger's writing is very good, but it cannot hide the fatigue not only of her characters, but of her story itself.

The last of the stories is the most unusual, if not the most successful. I found "Letter from the Last Bastion" creepily reminiscent of Lolita, in that it gradually collapses the space between teller and tale. The writer of the letter, ostensibly addressed to "Sir or Madam" but in fact aimed at a particular person, is a teenaged girl. Her purpose in writing is "to tell you some things you might not know about your Writer-in-Residence, Henry Marks." The girl claims to be in correspondence with Henry Marks, and she displays a thoroughly, almost incredibly precocious grasp of his several novels, all of which borrow heavily from his experiences, with which the letter writer is equally familiar. Almost immediately, however, readers from Greater New York will find themselves in a muddle.

On his trips home from New York [never mind where home might be], Henry always stops in Atlantic City, in order to spend an afternoon at the Sands Casino playing poker. Maybe it's a surprise to you that Henry's a poker player? Or maybe not - the students in his workshop know that he stops at the casino for an hour and a half, has one Jack and Coke at the table and another at the bar afterward, sometimes wins but more often loses, and even on his best days has never wanted to stay longer than the time he's allotted himself. Driving home, he likes to get off the Hutchinson River Parkway and take the smaller, wooded roads that curve through Greenwich and Stamford, shooting through the dappled tunnels of trees in his little silver car, past the stately white homes of people who would no sooner spend the afternoon playing poker in Atlantic City than they would sunbathe naked on the still expanses of their cropped and voluptuous lawns.

I was stuck at this passage for five minutes. It is simply not reasonable to speak of a trip from New York to anywhere on earth that takes one to the vicinity of Atlantic City and the Hutchinson River Parkway; they lie in opposite directions from the city. As it happens, Henry grew up in Lancaster (the last bastion, we learn), and one could easily stop off at Atlantic City en route to that Pennsylvania town. Henry also teaches at a college in New England, and the Hutch has always been my way of heading in that direction. But these points don't clear up the confusion. What they suggest is the kind of slip that's so easily made when various drafts of a composition (fiction or non-) are collated. I found that my confidence in the story was so shaken that I couldn't entirely trust other surprising details that emerged in the course of the long letter. Ms Freudenberger may have been flirting with magic realism; she may have been experimenting with any number of possibilities. But "Letter from the Last Bastion" reads like a sketch, an early draft. Instead of clarifying the relationships between the letter writer, the addressee, and Henry Marks, Ms Freudenberger steadily eliminates alternative possibilities until she is left, rather awkwardly I thought, with one. What might have been an extremely lyrical story - Henry's long life and the writer's short one are full of interesting turns and very well-written scenes - ends up in forced implausibility. 

In short, Nell Freudenberger is a gifted writer with a nose for edgy characters in dodgy international situations. It will be interesting to see how she grows. Having perhaps mined her Asian experience, will her work encompass more familiar situations? Or will it develop a surer command of the exotic? (July 2004)

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