That's what's on offer in Nell Freudenberger's debut collection, "Lucky Girls" (Ecco, $22.95). Set as far afield as India, Thailand and the wilds of Laos, the book is an irresistible marvel. Freudenberger is a writer with a strong sense of history, a merciless and often hilarious eye for family dynamics, and an equally sharp eye for cultures in collision. She's also an author who delights in playing with narrative structure. Her love of language and literature registers on every page she writes.
The only thing slightly off about the book is its title — for Freudenberger, when she chooses, can inhabit male skins as easily as female skins.
"The Tutor," about a young Indian who returns to his native Bombay to become a poet after attending Harvard and Columbia, is a case in point. Living with his parents and working as a private tutor, Zubin has both his troubles and his charms.
His latest pupil is a smart, mouthy American teen, Julia, who's either too lazy or too self-conscious about her writing talents to compose the necessary college-entrance essay that will help get her into Berkeley.
Julia's parents are recently separated, and she's chosen to follow her father to his new job in Bombay. But her family complications turn out to go well beyond family break-up. They're matched by Zubin's own complications of pride, ambition and reserve. As for Zubin's contact with Julia and her dad, it has sharpened the socio-cultural observer in him.
"Americans could go all over the world and still be Americans," he notes in a passage that resonates through all five stories in Freudenberger's book. "They could live just the way they did at home and nobody wondered who they were, or why they were doing things the way they did."
Complications ensue when Julia attempts to bribe Zubin into writing her essay for her. But Freudenberger is too canny a writer to reduce the girl to a mere spoiled brat. And Zubin is a wonderful creation: a little adrift, a little skeptical and a little too beguiled where Julia is concerned. The exchange between them — cultural and otherwise — is as sidewinding and satisfying as something out of Henry James, whose story, "The Pupil," seems an inspiration here.
Freudenberger's title story, "Lucky Girls," also posits a prickly cultural exchange, this one between the story's 25-year-old American narrator and the mother of the narrator's recently deceased married lover. The formidable Mrs. Chawla is both disapproving and grudgingly admiring of the stubborn young female who intruded on her son's marriage, and Freudenberger is perfect at conveying the older woman's feelings: "There was a brightness in her voice ... a gold wire of fury."
It perhaps goes without saying that Mrs. Chawla finds a wickedly devious way of putting the cool, willful narrator in her place.
In "The Orphan," we get a whole disintegrating American Jewish family in action as they descend on Bangkok, where daughter Mandy — self-righteousness personified — is volunteering at an AIDS orphanage. Mandy's parents (meticulous, insensitive, adulterous Jeff; abandoned appeaser Alice) have arrived with Mandy's brother in tow, with the intention of announcing their imminent marital split.
Comedy blends with wince-worthy family barbs as the story weighs "the incredible frustration of not knowing things, and of knowing that they can't be known." Certainly the appealing and clear-eyed Alice, confronting the mysterious and sometimes infuriating actions of her kids and soon-to-be-ex-husband, is left, alas, not knowing much at all.
"Outside the Eastern Gate" and "Letter from the Last Bastion" are more ambitious still: true novels in miniature. In "Eastern Gate," the legacy of an adventure-hungry but manic-depressive mother preoccupies an adult daughter eager for details on the overland trip her mother made from India to Istanbul in the late 1960s.
In "Last Bastion," a legacy of another kind — a male writer's autobiographical Vietnam War fiction — obsesses the precocious high-school-girl narrator who gradually discloses her connection to him.
Both stories twist, turn and convolute without missing a step. Freudenberger's wit and curiosity, her sure sense of human comedy, and her sheer writing chops all make a reader feel fortunate indeed to enjoy the company of these "Lucky Girls" and their assorted male companions.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org