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Women adrift in their lives

Lucky Girls: Stories; Nell Freudenberger; HarperCollins: 228 pp., $22.95

September 24, 2003|Carmela Ciuraru | Special to The Times

"LUCKY GIRLS," the title story of Nell Freudenberger's first collection, appeared originally in the New Yorker's debut fiction issue in 2001, while Freudenberger was an editorial assistant there. A minor feeding frenzy ensued among publishers, followed by a book deal with HarperCollins, and -- no fault of the author's -- a fair amount of the media-manufactured attention known as "buzz."

Had "Lucky Girls" turned out as a collection of, say, 12 stories, it might have been fine for a few to seem more mediocre than the rest. Yet there are just five long stories in this debut, so each one ought to be outstanding and, unfortunately, that isn't the case. Throughout the book, however, are moments of sharp humor and wise insight, especially into the dysfunctional layers of family dynamics. Unfortunately those moments are not sustained.

The characters in these stories tend to be young American women, often living abroad, exiled from their homelands and very deliberately from their families. These "lucky girls" are fortunate insofar as they are extremely wealthy, yet they are generally unhappy and unmoored.

The title story is told from the perspective of an American painter living in India, recalling her five-year relationship with Arun, a married man from Delhi who recently died "an unnecessary and stupid death" from a hemorrhagic fever caused by an insect bite. The unnamed narrator is just 22 when she meets Arun, who is 45. Besides reeling from her own grief, the young woman must contend with Arun's imperious, disapproving mother, who makes an unannounced visit to her apartment. Mrs. Chawla comes to assess and to shame the young American for having been involved with her married and otherwise proper son.

This story deals with prejudice, that of an Indian man's family against an American: "They did not like the combination of Arun and me," she says. "Their taste was conservative; and I thought they believed that people, like the drapes and the sofa, should match." The narrator concedes that while she and Arun were together, she never gave much thought to his other life, with his wife and two sons nearly of college age. Perhaps it's the solipsistic nature of a young person in love not to consider the larger implications of this affair.

In "The Tutor," she explores the relationship between Julia, the spoiled, petulant American daughter of an oil tycoon, living in Bombay, and Zubin, the sensitive, introspective SAT tutor who tries to resist his admittedly inappropriate attraction to the girl. There are some wonderful passages reflecting on the yearning to be in a place where one belongs: "Homesickness was like any other illness: you couldn't remember it properly. You knew you'd had the flu, and that you'd suffered, but you didn't have access to the symptoms." But these are dimmed by the familiar milieu of the rich, bored and cynical. When the Prada backpack-toting Julia toys with joining the Peace Corps to follow a boyfriend, her sister Claudia teases her: "I wonder if Agnes B. makes a safari line?" Freudenberger neither applauds shallow characters nor makes them into caricatures. That's admirable, but it leaves the reader wondering why they matter at all. In "The Orphan," she explores the troubles of an affluent, screwed-up family, and again there are flashes of wit and insight. She brilliantly captures what it means to find comfort in one's family yet be driven crazy by it. The problem is the uneven tone -- hilarious, bizarre family conversations are interspersed with a darker thread about Mandy, a young American living in Bangkok who is raped by her Thai boyfriend. But that part of the story goes nowhere.

Freudenberger writes consistently fine sentences, such as when Mandy reluctantly calls her mother, Alice, to tell her about the rape: Alice "thinks, bizarrely, of fishing. Her daughter is like a shiny trout, and it's up to her to reel her in. Any sudden movement, and it's over." Or when Alice considers how hard it is to occupy her Jewish family at Christmas: "You didn't want them to forget about being Jewish, even if you weren't really doing anything to make them remember their heritage. Alice liked to think of them as double-negative Jews: as long as they didn't seem not-Jewish, it was fine." The dialogue is often pitch perfect; Freudenberger knows how to lure in a reader. The trouble comes in sustaining interest. Her characters' quirkiness and instability are appealing but not explored in great depth. Desires and regrets are merely hinted at. We know these people are out of place, foreigners even to themselves, but we have no clue what drives them.

"Lucky Girls" is a frustrating read precisely because there are so many flashes of promise.

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