Sunday, June 19, 2011

My New American Life by Francine Prose

    This new novel by Francine Prose tells the story of Lula, an Albanian immigrant who moved to the U.S. just after 9/11.  When we meet Lula, she has landed a job as a "nanny" to a wealthy New Jersey man's 17 year-old son.  Mr Stanley and his son, Zeke, welcome Lula into their home and treat her like family, but even so, Lula is bored, which may be why she takes to lying about her past and the state of affairs in her homeland.  While Albania is still ruled by a strict, militant government, its citizens are not under quite as much distress as Lula claims.  But these exaggerations work to her benefit, as her employer and legal adviser feel so sorry for her that they put her on a fast track to obtaining a green card, and eventually citizenship.  She already knows more about American history and the English language than most natural-born citizens, so she looks pretty good on paper, too.

   Lula's life has become quite predictable (an American trait she considers bittersweet) until one morning, a black SUV parks outside of Mr. Stanley's home and three men emerge and ring the doorbell.  They tell Lula that they are friends of her cousin and could she please just do one small tiny favor for them?  Could she just hang on to a handgun for an unspecified amount of time with no explanation as to why the gun should be hidden?  This is how bored she is...she actually agrees to their shady request.  Needless to say, the subsequent events cure her of boredom in very unexpected ways, and Lula's new life takes on many different dimensions.

   This book offers poignant (and sometimes satirical) commentary on the lives of American immigrants - desperate to fit into American culture coupled with the deep roots of their own homelands and the desire to maintain that connection.  Often an unavoidable identity crisis ensues.  Lula's character is a great example of this condition and Francine Prose does an excellent job of presenting Lula's two selves - her Albanian self and her "new American" self, both converging somewhere around New Jersey.