American literature is full of earnest, heartfelt novels about the immigrant experience. Often, as in Ha Jin's A Free Life and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, these books shed light on what it means to be American by focusing on families awkwardly straddling two cultures, the old one left behind and the new, bewildering melting pot into which the younger generation are more rapidly assimilated than their parents.
Francine Prose's 16th book of fiction, My New American Life, takes an unusually lighthearted approach to the immigrant novel. Prose, a native New Yorker, has produced a social satire about post-9/11 America as seen through the eyes of a scrappy 26-year-old Albanian orphan named Lula. Coming from a paranoid culture of duplicity and larceny, "the most extreme and crazy Communist society in Europe," Lula lies her way to New York, "the so-called land of opportunity," on a tourist visa. She finds a different sort of paranoia in Bush-Cheney America—"And yet, for all the mixed feelings shared by waiters and busboys alike, the strongest emotion everyone felt was the desire to stay here."
With her visa running out, Lula lands a job as a live-in nanny in suburban New Jersey—with a boss who's willing to sponsor her and enlist his oldest friend, a hotshot immigration lawyer, to help her. Lula's undemanding job is to take care of a mostly self-sufficient high school senior, Zeke, stunned by his unstable mother's decampment months earlier. Zeke's father, whom Lula calls Mister Stanley, is a preternaturally subdued former economics professor who switched to more lucrative investment banking, though his heart isn't in it.
Bored and restless, Lula spends her days reading in the local library and worrying that a missing friend has been abducted by sex traffickers. Encouraged by her boss and lawyer to write a memoir called My New American Life, she produces magical stories based on Albanian folklore, which she presents as family history: "The true stories of her childhood were tales of grubby misery without the kick of romance, just suffering and more suffering, betrayal and petty greed. It was nice to mine the mythical past. Wasn't that the Albanian way?"
When three Albanian "brothers" show up in a black Lexus SUV and ask for "a teensy favor," to hold a gun for them, she doesn't ask many questions: "Not knowing more than she needed to was a policy that Lula tried to follow...It was how you survived under Communism." Besides, she's attracted to their handsome ringleader and happy for the diversion.
Prose, who skewered academia in Blue Angel, is, as always, sharply intelligent. She keeps My New American Life entertaining—and lightweight—with an antic plot and an undertone of amiability running beneath her ironic comparisons of gloomy, brutal Albania and supposedly brighter America, where euphemisms for torture abound and unappealing teenagers are hostile to their well-meaning parents. Lula's English is virtually flawless—which spares Prose from having to deal with foreign accents or locutions. But it also means that Lula's foreignness has to be conveyed entirely through her "Eastern Bloc pessimism" and caustic cultural observations. Example: "No one cooked in this country, though they were obsessed with every mouthful and afraid of how it might harm them."
With My New American Life, Prose has whipped up a frothy, benignly spicy ethnic dish. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.