Book review: 'My New American Life' by Francine Prose

Special to the Los Angeles Times

My New American Life

A Novel

Francine Prose

Harper: 306 pp., $25.99

Early in her writing life, Francine Prose developed an unmistakable voice: sharp, ironic, intelligent, uncompromising. Using this voice the way a miner uses a headlamp, she has crawled her way into the darkest corners of American life — suburbia, academia, post-Columbine public schools, society and culture post-9/11. Prose turns the American mind inside out, revealing all the fear, greed, paranoia, charisma and bullying within it. Her characters are often the people we read about in the news or hear about through six degrees (give or take a few) of separation — unjustly arrested, falsely accused, marginalized or just defeated by a dream they suspect is not their own.

In her latest novel, "My New American Life," Prose inhabits the mind of Lula, a 26-year-old woman from Albania. Lula is close to getting her green card after working for a time as a New York City waitress. When we meet her, she's working as a nanny for a divorced man, Mr. Stanley, with a teenage son, Zeke. Mr. Stanley's closest friend, Don, is an immigration lawyer who is helping Lula get her green card.

These are kind, well-meaning people. Unfortunately, as Prose has always known, it is when we think we are being good people that we reveal our cupidity.

Lula is happy with the calm, isolated life she has led for the last two years with Mr. Stanley and Zeke. She has been through a lot — the death of both parents in a less-than-heroic flight from war-torn Kosovo, a trail of stories through her childhood that careens around alcoholism, poverty, communism and government brutality. Mr. Stanley and Don encourage her to write her stories down. When she tries, a strange mix of lies, folk tales, plagiarized story lines from Albania's most famous writer, Ismail Kadare, and the truth emerges. It seems good enough for her American audience (Mr. Stanley and Don).

Her descriptions of life under communism, however, sometimes reveal a depressing similarity to her current life: "America was like Communism and post-Communism combined. You weren't supposed to be materialistic until you got successful, after which it was practically your duty to flaunt it in everyone's face." There's the Lula with the funny, colorful ancestors, and there's the Lula with a grim, Balkan cynicism that will harden in her arteries if she isn't careful.

Mr. Stanley and Zeke have been through their share of traumas — Zeke's mother left them one Christmas Eve, chasing a New Age dream in Bali, Sedona and elsewhere. She has a history of mental illness that Mr. Stanley has handled with a calm fortitude and that Zeke pretends to ignore. She lurks in shadows for much of the novel, but this felt absence is a source of instability.

Prose is very good at riddling the novel with anxiety. When Lula looks out the window and sees a black SUV circling the house, a reader's cortisol levels rise. When three Albanian men come into the house and ask their "little sister" to hide a handgun for them, we get even more nervous. When Lula starts to fall in love with one of them, we put the book down and put our head in our hands.

It's one of the oldest tricks in writing: Put a gun in a room and it will go off, sooner or later. Create an unstable society with too large a gap between the haves and the have-nots and someone's bound to get hurt. Raise children who are spoiled, selfish and immune to the pain of others and you will end up with a society hobbled by greed.

But Prose is not in the preaching game. She's interested in understanding what drives Lula to want this American life so badly. She's interested in the choices Lula has to make to obtain the possibilities inherent in that life. If we are anxious, it's because we want that life for Lula too. At a few points, Lula sees and feels the radiant hopefulness that can be the true beauty of Americans. In these moments she feels as if she is floating — until something or someone drags her back down.

Prose succeeds in making us feel the power of the American dream. She succeeds by transforming anxiety into compassion — it's a little lever that gets tripped when we truly imagine what another person feels.

Lula sorts her memories: She owns some, discards others, makes room for those pleasant ones about warm spring nights and the smells of Albanian cooking. When she stops trying to fool everyone around her to get what she wants, the reader sees, then she can take a big step toward being independent and owning a little piece of this American life.

Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.

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