This was on a list somewhere of noteworthy debut novels, and I quite enjoyed it. It’s a fine novel and what’s more, it ticks almost all of my “I obviously have to read that” categories: historical fiction set in the Middle East! Inter-generational family drama! Slyly feminist messaging! Pomegranates on the cover!
This is the story of a wealthy family of Persian Jews in early twentieth-century Iran. Asher Malacouti is the head – an astute businessman who has multiplied his family’s wealth. His wife Rachel is young and beautiful–it seems like a good match. But as their marriage progresses and they fail to have children, things get tense. What is a fortune worth without children? And what is Rachel worth if she can’t bear a son?
They get gradually more desperate, each stewing in their own (gender segregated) world, and their own emotions: fear of failure and shame, anger, jealousy. Things only get more desperate when others start having children, and when Asher learns that his comely cousin’s wife is newly widowed. Rachel’s sister-in-law (wed to Asher’s brother) and lifelong friend, Khorsheed, has a son and a daughter–it is this daughter, Mahboubeh, who narrates the story as an old woman.
Desperate people go to desperate lengths, and things for Asher and Rachel and the whole family go about as well as you’d expect. The reason it works in this book without ending up into trope territory is, I think, because Foroutan cleverly turns the stories around: a story about Asher’s success is actually a story about his selfishness; a story about “womanhood” is actually a story about working within society’s extremely limited definitions of “womanhood”; a story about Rachel is actually also the story of Khorsheed and Mahboubeh.
It didn’t stick to my ribs the way other similar books have, and I was sad that present-day Mahboubeh didn’t get more substantive screen time–I wanted more parallels, more connections between the past and present. I wanted to hang out with her, but her sections were mostly limited to sitting in her L.A. garden and getting lost in memories.
Still, a very good read.