Toward the end of “The Orphan,” the most compelling story in Lucky Girls, Nell Freudenberger’s seductive debut, the prim protagonist, a Manhattan matron named Alice, realizes that “often, when you step around the conventional way of doing things, you end up with something worse.” Alice has good reason for thinking so. Like many of Freudenberger’s characters, Alice’s twentysomething daughter Mandy has taken up residence in Asia—Bangkok, in this case—and honed an aversion to the accoutrements and customs of upper-middle-class life. When her Thai boyfriend rapes her, she calls Alice, sobbing, wanting her mother—8,000 miles away—to make “everything the way it was” before. But Mandy soon decides the incident was “a misunderstanding. A cultural thing, actually,” and it’s Alice who’s at fault, for “express[ing] skepticism about the need for cross-cultural understanding with rapists.”
Months later, when Alice, her husband, Jeff, and their son Josh arrive in Bangkok for a Christmas visit, Mandy pretends nothing happened. As the family treks miserably around Bangkok, the story develops into a gorgeous comedy of manners, reminiscent of Diane Johnson at the height of her powers. Mandy and Josh—she with her proud fluency in Thai, he with his membership in the Cool Rich Kids movement—are both 21st-century global-awareness-types, happy to burn through Alice and Jeff’s money while castigating them for their cluelessness about world politics. Presenting the kids through Alice’s befuddled eyes allows Freudenberger to simultaneously expose and subtly satirize the hypocrisies of both generations.
Freudenberger possesses a keen intelligence, a confident, unadorned style, a brilliant ability to vividly sketch a character through telling details (“she’d ruined hazel eyes with a heavy application of thick black eyeliner”), and a deeply appealing narrative voice. As such, the five long stories in Lucky Girls—all of them concerned with Ivy League East Coasters seeking a more authentic mode of existence in Asia—are enjoyable, if occasionally frustrating. At times, characters seem drawn less from life, more from film: the glamorous manic-depressive in “Outside the Eastern Gate,” who abandons her family in pursuit of increasingly exotic locales; the title story’s bossy Mrs. Chawla, whose dialogue seems stolen from a romance novel (“You’re not beautiful, but you’re strong-willed”).
Such clichés are doubly disappointing, coming from so astute a chronicler of contemporary mores. For Freudenberger is at her best when portraying the subtle horrors of American family life (genus affluent): “Ever since Josh was accepted by Colby, Jeff has called it ‘Colby College,’ as if he has to remind himself that Colby is a college. Mandy, like her father, went to Yale.” Though the longans and rickshaws might suggest otherwise, we’re deep in Cheever country. Not a bad place to be.