Prose’s tale of an Albanian immigrant in N.J. suburbs fails to lift off
Svetlana Kirilenko made me love “The Sopranos.’’ You remember Svetlana: the peroxided, chain-smoking, one-legged immigrant Russian home-care nurse who became Tony Soprano’s lover. It wasn’t just her charmingly unsentimental personality; I liked the fact that she appeared in the series at all. Svetlana was exactly the type of person we come into contact with every day yet rarely see dramatized. Now Francine Prose puts a Svetlana-esque character at the center of her novel, “My New American Life.’’ Her Lula is Albanian, not Russian, and she’s a nanny, not a nurse, but she’s got a lot in common with Svetlana — which may not be a good thing, in the end.
On the novel’s very first page Lula refers to “Stranger in a Strange Land,’’ Robert Heinlein’s 1961 tale of a human born on Mars who returns to Earth and finds it a hostile home. Putting an immigrant at the center of a novel has always been a good strategy for seeing one’s native culture in a new light. Lula toils illegally as a waitress in lower Manhattan along with a staff of other illegal immigrants: Dunia, a fellow Albanian, Eduardo the Mexican busboy, and a bulimic model from Belarus. After work, “everyone got drunk and bet on who’d get deported first.’’
Lula is 26, pretty, and her “visa problem was keeping her up at night.’’ She answers a Craigslist ad for a nanny and is surprised to find that Mister Stanley is on the level, not like the guy who taught her English back in Albania in exchange for sex. What a country. Mister Stanley hires her to watch his teenage son, Zeke, after school and in return she not only gets paid but he will help her get her US citizenship. But she remains skeptical.
Lula’s glass-half-empty outlook on life serves as the novel’s central joke: She expects the worst, which never arrives. That’s the odd thing about the book: Nothing terrible ever happens to her — under-tipping is as bad as it gets. It’s puzzling, but somehow all the real drama ensues just out of frame: We hear secondhand that Eduardo gets deported. Dunia prostitutes herself to a closeted, rich plastic surgeon. But this is all told after the fact. Lula, in contrast, lives in a bubble of suburban safety, surrounded by well-meaning Americans trying to help her. Her boss pays her well; she’s represented by the most famous immigration lawyer in New York City; and the only hint of danger comes from a brief encounter with her fellow Albanians.
This is a story about one woman’s inner world, and whether the outer world can change it. That’s the problem: not much changes. Lula’s pessimism can be endearing — “Paranoia was English for Balkan common sense,’’ Lula says — but it’s conventional not original. The Balkan shrug of resignation she employs so often is a familiar trope, an accurate portrayal of a certain kind of post-Communist apathy, no doubt, but not especially revealing. When Lula muses in chapter four that “[i]t was so hard to live among strangers with whom you shared no history, no knowledge of a way of life that went back and back,’’ I hoped it was a signal that the passage suggests that Prose would explore this drama more deeply, but it never happened. A list of some of the nonevents Lula experiences include: Lula’s lawyer making an inappropriate advance — or not (Lula isn’t sure); Lula being forced to hide a gangster’s gun and while, according to Chekhovian logic, the gun is eventually fired, no one is hurt, and Lula is never held responsible; Lula being attracted to a seemingly dangerous man, but their relationship is never consummated. This picaresque tale of Lula’s almost-adventures in suburbia leaves us wondering whether the defining quality of Lula’s new life is its lack of excitement.
Prose makes a point of referencing “The Sopranos’’ throughout the novel, which only begs an uncomfortable question: What has Prose revealed about the inner lives of ethnic Europeans adapting to life in the Garden State that “The Sopranos,’’ an epic series spanning nearly the entire first decade of this century and described more than once as “novelistic,’’ didn’t already? It may not seem like a fair comparison — “The Sopranos’’ is generally recognized as a masterpiece — but then, isn’t an actual novel supposed to have the advantage in this area? Surely the genre is specially designed for this purpose, to burrow deep inside the psyches of its characters in a way no other narrative genre can touch. As likable as Lula is, ultimately we know her about as well as we knew one-legged Svetlana Kirilenko, a minor character who appeared in just a few episodes. The time seems ripe for a great novel about immigration, yet after spending 300 pages immersed in her new American life, we leave Lula with little more than a Balkan shrug.
Buzzy Jackson is the author of “Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist.’’ She can be reached at AskBuzzy@gmail.com.