Review: My New American Life

Book by Francine Prose

My new American lifeOn a drizzly October afternoon, 26-year-old Lula stares through her window and muses: does a leaf fall in New Jersey if no one is there to see it? It’s not as cliché as it sounds—Lula is really wondering whether that leaf will fall, in the absence of an appreciative audience. Perhaps that’s because, since coming to America from Albania more than a year ago, Lula herself has done little but try—and lie—to win people over. She fabricates a “Christmas wedding” in Tirana to persuade border officials that, a) she doesn’t plan to stay in the U.S., and b) she isn’t half-Muslim. She trades wretched fact (her parents were killed in a car crash in Kosovo) for horrifying folklore (her cousin and his bride were barricaded in a cave as part of a blood feud) to convince her boss, Mr. Stanley, that she needs rescuing from “the most backward Communist country.” She entertains her charge, Mr. Stanley’s son Zeke, 17, with claims that vampire lynchings are common in modern-day Albania.

Meanwhile, Lula has plenty of drama now. There is the gun she is babysitting for three Albanian brothers. There is the stalker who showers in her bathroom and writes a brilliant ending to an old Albanian legend she is appropriating as family history. There is Alvo, her cute but shady suitor, Dunia, her disappeared friend, and Ginger, Zeke’s mentally ill mom, who left the family on Christmas Eve.

In Lula, Prose showcases her keen sense of young people’s inner lives, in particular the constant vacillation between cynicism and hope, goofiness and sophistication. Lula’s scoffing observations of U.S. politics and culture infuse the story with wry humour, but she is too full of heart to let paranoia (“English for Balkan common sense”) carry the day. Mr. Stanley and Zeke may never understand her former life but, as they draw her into the fold with their vulnerability and generosity, Lula begins to find a place for herself in her strange new home.