I almost always read by twos (one book for children/teens and one for adult).
In January only one book made it to my Favorite Books list.
I found My New American Life by Francine Prose in a bookshop in San Francisco. The book was on sale; I suppose because it was published in 2011. At the price I should have bought a few extra copies. I would offer one to anyone who lives in the US, far from her/his homeland, and another to the “true” American curious to see how recent immigrants see them.
Set in the aftermaths of 9/11, My New American Life is a satirical yet moving novel, telling of the making of an American.
Lula, a young Albanian woman, is living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. She finds a job in suburban New Jersey as a caretaker to Zeke, a seventeen-year-old boy. Zeke’s father is a former college professor turned into an unhappy Wall Street executive while his mother, going through mental-health issues, is living in the Arizona desert for the moment. Mister Stanley, as Lula calls her boss, assumes lots of things about Lula. He believes that because she is from Albania she is a refugee of the Balkan wars and he enlists his lawyer friend to straighten Lula’s immigration situation. Lula who speaks flawless English understands that these assumptions can accelerate her Green Card process. She takes advantage of Mister Stanley’s sincere kindness and naivety also tinted with a dash of condescendence. Like some Americans who are genuinely compassionate Mister Stanley “acts as if coming from somewhere else was like having a handicap or surviving cancer.”
The novel takes a more action driven turn when some guys from Albania show up and ask Lula to keep a gun for them.
Telling of every detail would spoil this unusual story, which describes with wit the bittersweet emotions that any immigrant who wants to make a life in the States experiences. The novel offers also an honest even brutal portrait of the American people. The flaws and qualities of the characters are extremely well perceived and skillfully depicted.
Francine Prose had already stolen many hours of my beauty sleep with her previous books, notably After and Blue Angel. I read My New American Life in two nights – only because I have to wake up at six a.m. every day and unfortunately need more than four hours of sleep now that I’m not thirty anymore.
There are many passages and sentences that I love in this book. One particular sentence summarizes the way I felt (sometimes) when I was new in the States and I’m sure the way most recent immigrants feel:
“It was so hard to live among strangers with whom you shared no history, no knowledge of a way of life that went back and back.”
The fact that Francine Prose chose to end her novel on Lula driving across the George Washington Bridge (without a license but with some practice) is symbolic and touched a personal chord.
Had I stayed in Paris who knows if I would have learned how to drive?
Driving in the USA is, for practical reasons, almost everywhere an obligation.
Learning how to drive for immigrants is similar to a coming out of age moment.
It means I am like everyone else.
I am one of you.
Do you like books with foreign protagonists? Are you curious about the way new immigrants perceive the United States and its inhabitants? Do you think that getting a driver license is as symbolic for Americans as it used to be?