An Albanian American life imagined
I follow Donna Seaman’s fiction reviews in Booklist because I’m always struck by her impressive use of adjectives and I often enjoy the books she recommends. That’s how I came across My New American Life by Francine Prose. Check out these adjectives: “…comically ironic and heartbreakingly guileless voice” and “…fast-flowing, bittersweet, brilliantly satirical immigrant story….” Kind of tempting for someone like me. Plus I love the cover art.
It turns out she was right on most counts. Prose tells the story of Lula, a young Albanian woman who lied to immigration when she arrived in the U.S. on a tourist visa and is staying way past her welcome. Skirting the fate of many Balkan immigrants, prostitution, she finds a job as a ‘babysitter’ in suburban New Jersey for Zeke, a 17-year-old high school senior. Her job is to be there when he gets home from school, to arrange for his meals and to keep him from driving beyond his pretty strict neighborhood limits. Zeke’s father, Mister Stanley, a pretty boring ex-professor, now Wall Street executive, hired Lula after Zeke’s mom Ginger had a nervous breakdown and left the family on Christmas Eve. Zeke responds to her daily motherly attention and Mister Stanley takes a kind of fatherly role by getting his high-powered immigrant lawyer best friend to get her a green card and encouraging her attempts at writing down Albanian tales (based on old family lore). All is going pretty well for Lula.
Until one day when a black SUV drives up and down the neighborhood and eventually stops at the house. In the SUV are Lula’s Albanian ‘brothers’ in hoodies and leather jackets with a request that she hide a gun for them No real relation, no explanation. Because she is kind of attracted to the ‘Cute One,’ and the post-traumatic pressure she feels from her life in unstable Albania, she says yes. Soon there are signs that Alvo (cutie) is stalking her; a red hair on her soap, a re-edit of one of her folk tales on Zeke’s computer Her new American life is now much more complicated. The gun comes into play later on in the novel, but not in the way you might expect.
The story is set in the post 9/11 Bush and Cheney years where being a Muslim is suspect and being an immigrant Muslim even worse. For an Albanian immigrant to navigate those turbulent waters takes much courage and pluck. Lula embodies that ingenuity; fabricating stories to impress Mister Stanley and the lawyer, improvising and using the “American Way” to accomplish her goal of staying the U.S. and finding a new life for herself. Lula’s sardonic observations of our society during this time are spot on. And while not much happens in this story, it is a sweet tale of someone finding her way in America.