Title: My New American Life
Author: Francine Prose
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“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.”
Thoughts: What does it mean to be an immigrant to the U.S. in this post-9/11 world? What about an immigrant from a former Communist country that is rife with corruption? My New American Life sets out to show the reader just that through Lula’s struggles to find her place in her new life. It is an interesting look at the need to find balance between old and new, to adapt to new customs while not quite letting go of old ones.
Stark and bleak, Ms. Prose tries to temper the darkness through humor; unfortunately, this does not quite work, as the reader never feels comfortable with Lula. She is a difficult character to like, with her constant, almost pathological, lying. The reader never truly understands why she feels the need to tell so many fibs. Even when confronted with her behavior, she never truly owns up to it. While she internally recognizes the damage her lying causes, she never acknowledges it to those that try so hard to help her find acceptance in her new home. This lack of contrition is bothersome, in my opinion, and prevented me from supporting Lula wholeheartedly.
One thing Ms. Prose does capture quite well is the constant struggle between old and new. Lula wants to fit in and adopt the customs and characteristics of her new country but cannot quite let go of her old ones. Her resentment at the privilege and lack of true hardship faced by most Americans but which are so commonplace among her fellow countrymen is poignant and true. If anything, My New American Life is a great reminder of just how lucky most Americans are when it comes to freedoms and luxuries.
Conversely, Ms. Prose also shows how most Americans take their freedoms and luxuries for granted. Mister Stanley focuses on his miserable job and strained relationship with his son while neglecting to notice the privileges he does have. Zeke is too busy being a stereotypical teen, ready to lash out at any parental figure, to understand how lucky he is to have a parent who adores him. It is only through Lula’s eyes that the reader can get a greater appreciation of one’s own gifts and comforts in this life.
As much as I appreciate the lessons Ms. Prose is trying to share, there were too many gaps and unanswered questions for me to truly enjoy My New American Life. The Albanian “brothers” were too mysterious. How did they find Lula? Why did they target her? They play such a key part in Lula’s confusion but are given only the most cursory of attention. The other characters in Lula’s life – her best friend from Albania, her zealous but well-meaning lawyer, Mister Stanley, and even Zeke – are a bit too stereotypical to be truly authentic. They felt more like caricatures, and at times, I caught myself rolling my eyes or inwardly groaning at the predictability of their behaviors. Also, the story itself was rather predictable. The reader can guess Lula’s path well before she ever steps on it. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does detract from the overall lesson.
I feel that My New American Life does a great job of reminding the reader to appreciate what one has and to understand just how different life is in other countries. Unfortunately, if Lula had been a bit more sympathetic and the story less predictable, the message Ms. Prose is trying to make would have had more impact. Still, in this day and age of economic crises and political upheaval, just remembering that Americans are still much better off than a large majority of the world is something all of us need to do more often.