An online interviewer asked Francine Prose, author of 16 novels and several non-fiction books, how she would like to be remembered. She replied, â€śIâ€™d like them to say [my] books were substantial but fun, extremely serious but funny, and never boring.â€ť That sentence alone could stand as a review of her 2011 novel, â€śMy New American Life.â€ť Prose looks at broken families, mental illness, Eastern European communist oppression and governmental paranoia with a light touch, if you can believe it.
We meet Proseâ€™s engaging protagonist, Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian immigrant, in a house in suburban New Jersey where she has just gotten a job as a nanny from a Craigslist advertisement. Lula had spent her first months in the United States in New York City, under the wing of a girlfriend from home, waitressing illegally. Her new employerâ€™s friend, a top-notch immigration attorney, arranged legal status for her so this new position promises to be the start of Lulaâ€™s brand new American life. Sheâ€™s wide-eyed and eager to learn all she can about her new country.
More companion than nanny, Lula talks easily with her charge, a quiet, contemplative high school senior, Zeke. He and his dad, Mr. Stanley, had been living alone since his troubled mother abandoned them. The single father with a high-powered job on Wall Street hired Lula because he couldnâ€™t bear the fact that his son would come home from school each day to an empty house.
Zeke and Lula have their routines. After school each day, he drives her to the supermarket in his â€™70 Olds since keeping food in the house and preparing dinner are part of her duties. Once they get back, they hang out in the kitchen together while she microwaves whatever frozen food theyâ€™ve selected for the day and drink the mojitos she mixes up for them both. (The mint is the only leafy, green thing they ever buy.) Zeke tells her about the idiocy of school, and she tells Zeke about growing up â€śin the most extreme and crazy Communist society in Europeâ€ť with 70,000 mushroom-shaped concrete bunkers littered the countryside of a country smaller than New Jersey.
Three rough-looking guys from her hometown of Tirana come into her life in a big, black Lexus SUV. Theyâ€™re friends of her cousin George, they tell her. This menacing vehicle brings Lula both trouble and a romantic interest, in the form of a handsome redhead named Alvo. Her new American life still has a lot of the old country in it.
Lessons about America abound for Lula in the classroom of New Jersey. Enough intrigue and drama develop to satisfy a reader. Prose has a sharp eye for details that lay bare the American way of life and the paranoid political climate that existed in the years right after 9/11. She has concocted a story that is both enjoyable and thought provoking, or as she would say, â€śfun, serious and never boring.â€ť