Written by Jan Kline on June 27, 2011

My New American Life, by Francine Prose

Francine Prose’s latest has Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian immigrant as its main character. After waitressing for a few months, she lands a job as a live-in caretaker/housekeeper for a college professor, Mister Stanley, and his high school son, Zeke. Luckily for her, since her visa is about to expire, the professor’s best friend is an immigration lawyer who’s willing to take on her case.

Trapped in the claustrophobic world of the depressed, divorced Stanley and his confused son, Lula has no contact with the outside world. She worries that her best friend, Dunia, has been abducted, deported, or worse. Her days alternate between boredom, alienation, and a fleeting desire to establish more of a life of her own. Then she notices a black SUV cruising through her neighborhood, slowing down at her house. Eventually it stops, disgorging three Albanian men who inveigle their way into Mister Stanley’s house. They are at once comical, foreboding, and a reminder of life back home. Uncertain whether she should trust them or not, she takes the leap anyway, since she develops a crush on one of them. From there on out, her life becomes more complicated, exciting, possibly dangerous.

But the character of Lula is more than a two-dimensional, shell-shocked victim of a hard past and an uncertain future. She begins embellishing the stories she tells Stanley and Zeke about Albania, inserting real people into folktales. She seems unsure of why she’s doing this — to see how gullible they are? to inspire more sympathy? — but they find the stories compelling enough to encourage her to write them down. The writing becomes part of her life, a new outlet for her.

I enjoyed this book, as I have everything I’ve read by Prose (Blue Angel, A Changed Man). The characters are quirky and well-drawn, and there’s more than enough menace projected by the trio in the SUV — and enough worry about whether Zeke is going to successfully launch from this dysfunctional household — to keep you reading.

author photo by Judy Linn

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