You may be able to take the girl out of the country, but it’s harder to take the country out of the girl. In the case of Francine Prose’s My New American Life, the country is Albania. Twenty-six year old Lula has left Albania to find the American dream, and lands a job in New Jersey as a nanny to a sullen teenager. His father, Mr. Stanley, a Wall Street banker, has a lawyer friend, who can pull strings to get her a work visa.
She settles into an easy life of being around for Zeke when he comes from school, making egg-white omelets on Sundays – substituting for the mother who left abruptly on a Christmas Eve. Encouraged by Mr. Stanley and her lawyer, Lula tells and writes stories about her homeland, exaggerating her family’s participation in the war and the horrors they endured – using old folktales to enliven her plots – letting her narrative seem to be real experiences she never had.
“It was nicer to mine the mythical past. Wasn’t that the Albanian way? Five minutes into a conversation, Albanians were telling you how they descended from the ancient Greeks…”
Her secure new life is threatened by a group of young Albanians, led by handsomely dangerous Alvo, who conveniently find her alone one day and ask her to hide a gun.
“She wondered which was more dangerous, ditching Alvo’s gun and pissing off the Albanians, or holding on to it and worrying that someone would report her to the INS. The latter seemed less likely.”
Prose uses Lula’s sarcastic observations of American life to reflect her own opinions of post 9/11 and immigration during the George W. Bush era. Whether or not you agree with her political leanings, the comments are biting and humorous. But Prose has a hard time sustaining the irony, and it’s tempting to move quickly over the excessive cynicism. Through Lula, Alvo, and friends, Prose also offers glimpses into an immigrant’s life in a strange country, the longing for acceptance, and the search to be with those who share a common history.
The plot line dissolves into a crazy Christmas Eve spectacle with Lula and Alvo in bed, a surprise intruder, and the gun firing. Alvo disappears, Zeke finds a college, and the story takes another turn, with Lula conveniently discovering the possibilities of a court reporting career – almost as though Prose could not figure out how to end her story. For the finale, Lula gets her American dream with all the trimmings…
“She wanted it all, the green card, the citizenship, the vote. The income taxes! The Constitutional rights. The two cars in the garage. The garage. The driver’s license.”
With tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and a contrived plot, My American Dream may make you think about what it is to be an American.