Don’t hate her because she’s beautiful
As novelist Curtis Sittenfeld put it, “hating Nell Freudenberger … is a virtual cottage industry among ambitious literati.”
It’s not just that Freudenberger is young, pretty and successful, or that the first short story she “ever felt like was even remotely worth publishing” was printed in The New Yorker. She is also immensely talented.
Her first book, Lucky Girls, a collection of five long, short stories, relaunched the far-flung American-abroad tale with new subtlety and grace. It led Freudenberger to become the youngest PEN/Malamud short story award winner ever and earned her the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction.
Sitting in a leather arm chair at SoHo House in Manhattan’s meat-packing district, Freudenberger, 32, seems genuinely oblivious to the hoo-ha she creates. The word “I” does not come natural to her. She shoehorns her sentences around it, stuffing “you” and “one” and anything else in its place if she has to. In a city known for its sharp-elbowed climbers, she seems decadently left-coast.
That’s because she is. A Los Angeles native, Freudenberger has tapped into her California past in her debut novel, The Dissident, the story of a visiting Chinese painter named Yuan Zhao who spends a year at toney St. Anselm School for Girls in Los Angeles, living in the converted pool house of the Travers family. The book was recently long-listed for the Orange Prize.
Zhao’s appearance causes ripples in the community, most notably among the Traverses, who already have their hands full. Mother Cece is just getting over an affair with her brother-in-law, who has turned their exploit into a screenplay. Cece’s sister-in-law, Joan, an unhappily single struggling novelist, begins to cannibalize Zhao’s story for a book. Meanwhile, Cece’s husband continues his glacial continental drift away, and their children, Olivia and Max, stagger into late teenage melodramas.
Freudenberger says the novel is inspired by a visiting art teacher she had at the Marlborough School in Los Angeles. “He was the first teacher I’d ever had—coming from the progressive, private American system of education—who told us we were wrong,” she says.
After graduating from Harvard, Freudenberger went to Thailand to teach English and discovered writing instead. “I didn’t really have anything to say about being an American until I went and lived in that high school and was kind of confronted by my American-ness every day,” she says.
Freudenberger came to America with a fistful of letters she had written and some really bad fiction, then began studying to get an MFA at New York University, where she says she wrote another “really bad” novel.
She also landed a day job at the New Yorker, where she became assistant to the fiction editor, Bull Buford. “It was amazing,” she says. “They let us write little sidebars in the magazine. They really encouraged us.”
Freudenberger says she needed it, for after “Lucky Girls” was published in the debut fiction issue in 2000, she became the target of a publishing bidding war and wound up with a book contract and a book to write. “I started out having this panic every day that I would somehow not be able to do it,” she says. “I don’t have that anymore.”
It may seem wildly improbable that a privileged, white American writer, drawn to the front-lines of avant-garde art in part by a sense of her own great expectations, could make anything worth reading, but it’s true.
Freudenberger was recently tapped by Granta magazine as one of America’s Best Young Novelists, an accolade again she didn’t seek out but that will almost certainly give the literati one more reason to harrumpf. With The Dissident, she proves what a shame it would be if they didn’t read the book first.