A Portrait of the Con Artist as Albanian-American

Francine Prose Illustrates the Absurdities of Immigration

By Irina Reyn

Published July 18, 2011, issue of July 29, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

MY NEW AMERICAN LIFE
By Francine Prose
HarperCollins, 320 pages, $25.99

Francine Prose’s light-hearted new novel, “My New American Life,” could be renamed “A Portrait of the Con Artist as a Young Immigrant.” In this case, the artist of sorts in question is Lula, and she is a weaver of tales, a woman making sense of human disconnections by writing stories. So what if everyone around her thinks her tales are true?

Lula’s life is much duller than would be expected for an attractive 26-year-old Albanian immigrant. She nannies a cloistered high school kid whose mentally unhinged mother has fled the family and whose single father is a kind boss, if mournful and rather antiseptic. Her only friend, Dunia, has mysteriously disappeared. And worst of all, Lula is trapped in New Jersey, the lure of Manhattan flashing seductively in the background. So it is no surprise that when a couple of Albanian musclemen arrive in their black Lexus SUV and ask her to store a gun for them, Lula happily agrees. Especially since one of them is as good-looking as Alvo.

The Prose Knows: In her latest novel, Francine Prose offers a sly take on the immigrant experience.
Stephanie Berger
The Prose Knows: In her latest novel, Francine Prose offers a sly take on the immigrant experience.

When she returns home one day to find someone has taken a shower in her bathtub and has finished typing her whimsical tales of old Albania (even if their plots are plagiarized from the renowned author Ismail Kadare, winner of the Man Booker International Prize), Lula is thrilled to discover that her circumstances have just gotten a lot more interesting. Will Alvo be her love ticket out of her humdrum existence, or will his dangerous, irresistible charms place her immigration status in jeopardy?

The novel’s strengths hinge less on the answers to these questions than on its rapid, knowing dialogue and its nuanced portrayal of a flawed person searching for the promise of the American dream without having a real sense of what that entails. Ultimately, it is Lula’s wry voice that forms the centerpiece of the book. While appropriately cynical and tough-minded (“Good luck telling an Albanian girl what to do”), she is also empathetic toward the lonely people that surround her. Unlike Dunia, who is a more broadly comic figure of the gold-digger variety, Lula is both opportunistic and compassionate, always willing to lie if necessary — and even when not necessary — but always alert to the limits of her moral boundaries.

Most important, Lula is aware of, and amused by, the fact that her role as immigrant involves fitting herself into Americans’ conceptions of her. They expect her to compare America to the Old Country: “In her country, under Communism, if someone broke into your place and didn’t take anything, it meant you were in trouble. Whereas after Communism, no one would bother breaking in unless they were planning to take something.”

They imagine she will want to record her country’s colorful history. They presume in her a world-weariness mixed with colorful folk wisdom, which Lula readily provides, usually in the form of exaggerations if not downright lies. Cannily, she grasps that “virtue, integrity, courage, hard work rewarded — that was the story they wanted to hear.” Prose understands that today’s immigrant novel must be aware of the complications inherent in the consumption of the genre; an immigrant’s representation of her culture to Americans is by necessity an invention, sometimes a fraught one.

So what does a new American life look like these days? As president of PEN American Center, as well as the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including “Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife” (HarperCollins, 2009) and “Blue Angel” (Harper Perennial, 2001), which was a finalist for a National Book Award, Prose is particularly well situated to take on this question. Yet, it seems that just as Prose subverts the traditional conception of the immigrant myth, she also winds up reinforcing it. Lula may be self-aware about playing the role of the hardscrabble immigrant, but one path that lies before her — her desire to leave the depressing New Jersey house and dead-end nanny job and assume a more upwardly mobile career— is also a retreading of the tale of immigrant success. One wonders if there is room for an exploration of other kinds of narratives, if there is a story within an immigrant trajectory that does not culminate in material, professional and real estate success.

That more complicated story may truly be the new American life for the recession-era post-immigrant novel. But in the meantime, we enjoy our time with Lula, who from time to time offers one of her famous, hilarious observations. “Paranoia was English for Balkan common sense,” she might tell us, and then raise her wine glass and toast, “G’zoor.”

Irina Reyn is the author of “What Happened to Anna K” (Touchstone, 2008).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.