Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Francine Prose's "My New American Life": Book Review

The meandering plot and generally light-hearted take include some serious issues about assimilation, exploitation, and immigrants seeking to integrate themselves into the seamier or loftier sides of American life the past decade. As with Prose's previous novels A Changed Life about the Holocaust "industry" and white supremacists, and Blue Angel about teacher-student love or lust, this author takes on tricky issues. Francine Prose lightly satirizes while earnestly exploring the tensions of lives lived with disappointment behind comfortable facades in an accessible, gently wry, and ambitiously observant view taken from among the well-intended upper middle classes of the urban or suburban East Coast.

I liked those two novels the same way I like My New American Life. That is, Prose succeeds at capturing the asides that pepper her plots with appealing characters we can recognize. She likes to take "issues" and tweak them. One of the best episodes here shows teen Zeke at a college tour which goes awry, and another the foul-mouthed, unsettling return of a key character who's been offstage until a sudden entry at a very inconvenient time.

Ellen Archer reads that figure's flat, Midwestern tones as wittily as she does the elongated Albanian fellows' drawl, and plays this off of the main character's slightly different accent and that of her fellow emigre, as women on the rise. Archer conveys teenaged Zeke's petulance, Mr. Stanley's resignation, and the various Albanian world-weary, sententious, drones and moans such as they sound as drawn out with aplomb. I heard this all on audiobook and that kept my interest perhaps more than if I'd read this in print. The array of characters may not be many, but extras and supporting cast convey often the highlights of the book.

They are played against Don the aggressive (of course) lawyer, full of outrage about Guantanamo Bay and Cheney, although this is more entertaining as background chatter rather than center stage after a while. It seems Prose favors his liberal stance, but as with the social critique underlying parts of this book, it seems that the author is nearly unwilling to give any newcomer to these shores less than the full benefit of the doubt. This complicates the plot, and the pace of the story slows even as it reaches its climax, which itself may not have needed its coda, a wish-fulfillment that seemed to me too pat, even if somewhat "earned" late in the game by our plucky, and certainly inventive in more ways than one, heroine. (Amazon US 7-3-12)

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