Coming to the "new" America
There has been a lot written about the Bush and Cheney days, but rarely from such an amusing perspective as in Francine Prose’s My New American Life. In the novel, Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City with an expiring tourist visa, finds work as a nanny for the son of a Wall Street executive. She mainly spends her days on the couch in the family’s suburban New Jersey home, contemplating the supposed differences between her new country and her homeland—and the two are more alike than initially meets the eye.
The novel is worth the read for chapter three’s brilliant dinner scene alone. Lula, newly granted access to the next rung on the immigration ladder, celebrates her status with a meal in Manhattan. As her boss tells her, to avoid going out to eat on someone else’s dime would be “deeply un-American.” After debating what to wear, Lula settles on a new skirt and vetoes “the knee socks that would have nudged her outfit over the line from college girl to role-playing, escort-service college girl.” She enjoys certain privileges for this dinner—sitting up front in the car on the way there, unlimited wine and the opportunity to discuss her budding interest in writing short fiction. “To Lula and her new American life!” the party toasts. But the dinner—like her new life—is far from perfect. Lula is relegated to the same side of the table as the children, where she sucks down too much wine, realizes that her benefactors are being haplessly swindled by the kitchen staff and then rides home in the backseat. The rest of the novel, like this scene, revels in Lula’s unique, sardonic and totally refreshing perspective. Lula, we see, is often more aware of U.S. dynamics than the citizens who have lived there for decades.
“She wanted it all,” Prose writes of Lula, “the green card, the citizenship, the vote. The income taxes! The Constitutional rights. Two cars in the garage. The garage.” In this post-9/11 world, the road to realizing these desires has no map. But in My New American Life, Lula carves her own way in a journey that is at once honest, complicated, sexy, funny and—ultimately—uplifting.