Lucky Girls: Stories
by Nell Freudenberger
Too young, too pretty, too successful
A review by Curtis Sittenfeld
First, the facts: In its 2001 "Summer Fiction Issue" the New Yorker printed
four stories by "debut writers," a title defined by the magazine as
"young writers who have not yet published a book." Among the four was
Nell Freudenberger, then age 26; her contributor's note mentioned both that she
was an editorial assistant at the New Yorker and that her piece, which
was called "Lucky Girls," was her first published story. Author photos
accompanied all the debut stories, and the three other writers had been photographed
at, respectively, a park, a restaurant and a marina. Freudenberger had been photographed
in her apartment, shot from above while sitting on what appeared to be a shiny,
velvety mauve and silver bedspread. She had pale skin and shoulder-length dark
hair; she wore a serious expression; it would be overstating it, but not by much,
to say that you could see down her shirt.
On the June day the magazine appeared in my mailbox, I set aside what I was
doing, which was, if I remember correctly, nothing (I had just graduated from
the Iowa Writers' Workshop and was still living in Iowa City) and read much
of the issue, including the story by Freudenberger. I think I liked the story,
though it's hard to say now a bit like having been given a hamburger by a
man at a picnic and only later, after finding out the man was Ray Kroc, trying
to evaluate that hamburger. What I do remember is thinking Freudenberger looked
kind of awkward, but in an endearing way.
I was quickly disabused of this idea. Nell Freudenberger was, as one of my
Iowa classmates announced at a party that night, completely hot. (If you'd like
to verify this for yourself, she has appeared in recent issues of both Vogue
and Elle go on, get to the newsstand.) A bunch of us were sitting
on someone's back porch, drinking beer, and the other males present (of course
everyone I knew subscribed to the New Yorker, and of course everyone
had anxiously consumed that particular issue) concurred. A debate about the
story's merits ensued; most people had, apparently, been less impressed by Freudenberger's
writing than by her appearance. Naturally, there were cracks about her insider
status as an employee of the New Yorker. Which is all to say that
the conversation wasn't particularly flattering to Freudenberger, but still
the assumption was that she warranted conversation. (Among the other debut
writers in that New Yorker was Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel
Is Illuminated would come out the next year, but I don't remember any real
talk about him.)
And yet I think I didn't truly understand the Freudenberger phenomenon until
a woman at the party, a woman whom I thought of as gorgeous and brilliant and
poised and intimidating, said she had gone to Harvard with Freudenberger and
that Freudenberger was, basically, gorgeous and brilliant and poised and intimidating.
Of everyone she knew, this woman said, it was utterly unsurprising that Nell
Freudenberger should be the one to have a story in the New Yorker.
Probably that night, on the porch, some of us already hated Freudenberger.
And yet, remarkably, this was before the things started happening that really
made her hateful, or at least it was before all of them happened and certainly
before news of them made their way out to us in Iowa. This is what occurred
next: Amanda "Binky" Urban became Freudenberger's agent; a bidding
war broke out, on the basis of that single story, for an as-yet-unwritten book
by Freudenberger; she was offered a reported $500,000; she turned down the reported
$500,000 and instead took a reported $100,000 in order to work with Daniel Halpern
at Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. (Meaning she was, like, virtuous and un-greedy
on top of everything else it was sickening!)
For a week or so, over e-mail or when we ran into each other in town, I exchanged
Freudenberger tidbits with people who'd been at the party. (It was summer in
Iowa. What else were we supposed to discuss?) And, apparently, Freudenberger
gossip that is, schadenfreudenberger was not restricted to bored Midwestern
MFA graduates: According to my friend J., a writer in New York who'd see Freudenberger
at parties, "There was all this whispering, like, 'She hasn't even written
it yet; she has no idea how difficult it is to write a whole book.'" Freudenberger's
party persona, which according to J. was one of refined reserve, only perpetuated
notions of her as charmed and undeserving. "She's just one of those people
who always make me feel loud and drunk," says J.
Truthfully, among the people I know, the schadenfreudenberger tapered off pretty
soon after her story appeared in the New Yorker, and I haven't heard a lot in
the two years since. But on the occasions when her name is mentioned, it's guaranteed
if at least one of the two or more people present is from either the MFA
circuit or the New York media universe, someone will be compelled to announce,
loudly and violently, "I hate Nell Freudenberger!"
And while my friends and I may have gotten distracted in the past two years,
others have remained more vigilant a Web site called "The Complete Review"
closely monitors Freudenberger's in-print activity and even features a play
about her ascension titled "Whoa Nelly!" (A sample line, referring
to her New Yorker photo: "I must say I do like the aluminum-foil skirt.")
The site is, apparently, providing a much-needed service. As reported in an
October 2002 entry, "Visitors to this Literary Saloon seem particularly
curious about Nell Freudenberger 'Nell' and 'Freudenberger' remain (ridiculously)
the two most popular search engine request terms that lead users here ahead
of even 'literary' and 'saloon.'"
Now as of this week Freudenberger's collection, titled Lucky Girls
after the story that appeared in the New Yorker, is finally out, and
the mainstream media is working itself into a similar lather. In addition to
her appearances in Vogue and Elle, Entertainment Weekly
has declared her "the summer's hottest young writer." (Hotter, presumably,
than Tom Clancy who also has a new book out but has not yet appeared in E.W.,
as Freudenberger did, sitting on the floor against the wall, hair falling over
one eye, next to a bowl of cherries.)
None of which makes hating Nell Freudenberger fair. It isn't fair. Most of
the circumstances leading to the hatred happened through no fault of Freudenberger
herself which is exactly the problem. As my friend R., a writer living outside
Buffalo, wrote in a recent e-mail, "It just seems to have happened for
Nell's career sitting at the desk, playing assistant, and then, oh? This
old thing? This little story I wrote on a whim? And $500,000 worth of dominoes
start falling into place." As J. puts it, "She didn't do what you're
supposed to do she sat in 4 Times Square until [then New Yorker fiction editor]
Bill Buford came to her."
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that four factors could lead to one young
writer's becoming the object of other young writers' loathing. Let's say these
factors are that the writer in question is thought to be attractive, thought
not to have paid her dues, known to have gone to Harvard (horrors!), and believed
to be without talent. The bad news for Freudenberger is that she represents
the overlap of all these factors, thereby becoming emblematic to other 20-something
aspiring literati of all that's unfair and demoralizing about publishing. It's
not any single thing after all, I know several people who have gotten book
deals comparable to the larger one Freudenberger supposedly turned down, and
they don't elicit the contempt she does but rather it's everything. And,
largely because of age (Freudenberger and I both graduated from college in 1997),
she seems overly accessible; she's not different enough from the rest of us
to be enjoying such different circumstances. To put it another way: I've never
looked at Jonathan
Franzen and thought, But that should be me!
The problem is, Freudenberger actually doesn't represent the overlap of the
four hate-inviting factors; the exception is the last and most significant one.
She's not without talent. In fact, her new collection is really good. The five
stories are well-written, well-plotted, intelligent and surprising.
Believe me: I didn't want it to be this way. I came to the book eager to uncover
its most damning aspects. For instance, the title didn't it cry out to be
incorporated into headlines in a mocking comment on Freudenberger herself? For
God's sake, it was like calling a really wretched novel The Big Disaster.
And how about allowing just five stories to constitute an entire collection?
Wasn't that a bit thin?
I was pleased when, on Page 8, an older man says to the young American woman
who is the first story's protagonist, "You're extremely pretty." Aha!
I thought, licking my chops. This will be the kind of fiction where other characters
are constantly telling the disingenuously self-effacing main character, clearly
a stand-in for the author, how alluring she is. (Such fiction is only slightly
less odious than fiction in which other characters are constantly telling the
disingenuously self-effacing main character, clearly a stand-in for the author,
how witty she is especially when there's nary a funny remark to be found.)
But the older man's remark in the story is offset both by the thrill it gives
the protagonist, who is unaccustomed to such compliments, and by the protagonist's
own apparently ingenuous admission that she is, in fact, not extremely pretty.
I still wasn't won over, though. The stories are set occasionally in the United
States but more often in India and Asia (both Thailand and Vietnam), and in
the margins of Page 21, I noted that Nell Freudenberger was probably the kind
of person who had, during college, returned from a year abroad pretending not
to remember the English words for things. But then something happened. It started
happening in the second story, as the evocative details and vivid images and
casually realistic lines of dialogue accumulated I think it was somewhere
soon after the description of "orange and white carp [gliding] just under
the green surface, like pale, fat feet floating in a lake" and I found
myself spending less time trying to be appalled and more time just, well, reading.
It was on Page 80 that Freudenberger got me, with a sentence uttered by a woman
who is grievously depressed: "I thought of going to bed, but what I really
wanted was to be inside the bed inside the mattress, where it was warm and
dense and silent, with the stuffing packed around my arms and legs." What
got me about the sentence was both how weird it was weird in a sincere rather
than quirky way and how understandable. And I am pretty sure that's the point
of reading fiction so someone else can say in a way you never would have
something you recognize immediately.
The publisher's press release I received accompanying the book describes Freudenberger's
work as "exquisite." In some ways, though only bad ones, it is kind
of exquisite: Her characters are the type of people who write poetry and use
actual leaves and a strainer to make tea. What I ultimately admired about the
book was not its precious moments, however, but its oddness and unpredictability,
its willingness Freudenberger's willingness to make the stories messier
in a way that also makes them more real. There are many moments of drama that
are built up to and then don't happen, even when, at least initially, the characters
believe they have. A father reminisces poignantly about his daughter as a 7-year-old,
but instead of letting that section end in an achingly beautiful way, a way
that would be truer to fiction than to life, the narrator reveals that she thinks
her father's memory is inaccurate. In another story, an American girl living
in Bombay tries to seduce her Indian tutor by dancing in front of him but,
though the girl is attractive, "she was not a good dancer." The dialogue,
which does an especially nice job capturing the cadence of both teenagers and
close family members, features people saying things such as, "I'm sorry
I'm all gross from tennis," and, "Scallops are weird. Do they even
have heads?" The beauty of such lines is that they're not, thank God, exquisite.
The stories are thematically linked in addition to travel, they touch repeatedly
on absent mothers, adolescent sexual initiation, and writing itself but they're
not heavy-handedly so. There is something patient about Freudenberger's writing,
a gradual build-up to the important moments so they really feel important. Or,
in the writing workshop lingo that is both cringe-inducing and hard not to use,
they feel "earned": "He looked at me directly, with a sudden
focused intensity. It was a quality of attention I hadn't experienced before,
an ability he had to suggest that everything that had gone before had led to
this precise moment."
Both the individual characters, especially the stories' protagonists, and the
stories themselves, possess an unusual knowingness. In many cases, the characters
possess a kind of double awareness they know what they know, and they also
know enough to try to protect others from their knowledge. When a child sees
a deformed man in a slum in India, "I looked quickly at my shoes, to reassure
whichever adult I was with that I hadn't seen [him]." Eventually, the double
knowingness becomes a triple knowingness the final story, told by a teenage
girl, concerns a famous writer and blithely mentions, in a discussion of the
famous writer's work, the presence of "the one weird detail that makes
you know it's real" as well as the commonplace assumption that the author
and his or her characters are more or less the same person.
In these moments, it is hard not to think of Freudenberger herself, and, simultaneously,
it's hard to locate where exactly she comes down on any given situation or idea.
Which is not to say the writing is coy, more that it's admirably lacking in
ego it's not an assertion of the writer's personality. I don't know, based
on her writing, who Nell Freudenberger is, but the more I read her book, the
more I saw that she was in control, that she had known all along what would
happen. And I was forced to admit: Given the preponderance of characters who
are young, female and privileged without necessarily being happy, Lucky Girls
is exactly the right title for the book. And five stories, especially five longish
ones, is exactly the right length. It's no secret that in collections with the
more standard eight or 10 stories, three or four usually stink so why not
preemptively cut the flab?
In Freudenberger's last story, the famous writer is revealed to be less than
likable, and yet he is given what I thought (and I'm not particularly fond of
fiction about writers) was the book's loveliest passage:
"For a few minutes after he'd finished [writing] a book, when he knew
it was good but before anyone else had seen it, he felt no pressure to exist
at all; the book existed for him. It was like being invisible in the silent
woods, so strange a figure that someone passing on the trail above him would
only with great difficulty focus on him and think: That is a man. Instead
they would see a shadow or a storm-broken tree and move on ... He knew it
wouldn't last, but for these few, charmed moments, looking at the frozen reservoir,
Henry felt that things had been put in order; nothing could touch him; he
was outside of everything, and at peace."
For me, this is it precisely Nell Freudenberger's book not only reminded
me why I read, it also reminded me why I write. In my defense, I didn't love
Lucky Girls (phew!), I didn't feel as though I needed it, but I did like
it a lot.
So now that it seems I'm the newest member of the Nell Freudenberger fan club
(you know, just me, Bill Buford, Binky Urban, and Daniel Halpern, hangin' out,
shootin' the literary shit I suppose Richard
Ford could be let in, too, as he gives Freudenberger a glowing blurb on
the book cover), I'm not sure what's next. On the one hand, my congenital bitterness
and envy feel unfocused, at loose ends. On the other hand, there are lots of
MFA programs, conferences, literary magazines and anthologies, and every day
they get filled by writers younger and cuter than I am. Plus, there's a lot
of really bad fiction out there not just wish-it-was-bad fiction that's actually
really good, but bad-bad fiction. Surely it's only a matter of time before I
find someone new to detest.
first novel will be published by Random House in spring 2005. She lives in Washington,