Warning: Spoilers in the review
Kamali’s “The Stationery Shop” offers a “first-hand” (albeit through fictional characters) glimpse into the events and experiences of the people surrounding the 1953 Iranian coup d’etat (of which I didn’t know much until I read up on it as I read this book, check out the U.S.’s involvement online!), which was what originally drew me to this book. I love historical fiction, and in particular, books that explore periods of history not typically written about in historical fiction (i.e., the King Henry era, WWI and II).
While I thoroughly enjoyed Kamali’s descriptions of life in Tehran, her juxtaposition of Iranian culture to American culture and the budding romance between a young activist and a young woman, I found myself wishing there was more of this in later parts of the book. Once our main character, Roya, moves to the U.S., heartbroken and in the hopes of realizing her father’s dream of becoming a scientist, there seems to be a drop off in any further character development of Roya, her sister Zari and even their respective love interest (i.e., it seems that she completely gives up any hope of becoming something other than a secretary after landing the B-school job. Does she really just give up on motherhood and her marriage as well after losing Marigold? What about the relationship between the sisters after Zari comes to visit from California after Marigold’s death?) It seems as if a huge chunk of the book is edited out as we jump from the early years of Walter and Roya’s young marriage after college to *60 years later.* Kind of big jump there folks. After Roya loses her first daughter, Marigold, to croup at the tender age of 1, we pretty much go right into Roya reuniting with Bahman 60 years later in a matter of a couple short chapters. And from there, the book seems to tumble quite quickly to the closing chapters as Roya and Bahman reconnect on his death bed.
The side stories of Claire (nursing care assistant), Mrs. Aslan (Bahman’s mother) and Mr. Fakhri (stationery shop owner), while interesting, could have benefitted quite from a bit more development, even if it added another 100 pages. The reader is left wondering why they’re included when they really don’t add to the story (particularly Claire), except to provide a motive for Mr. Fakhri to change the love letters and then rush to the square to help Roya find Bahman. Indeed, the rush-job in explaining Mrs. Aslan and Mr. Fakhri, is so underdeveloped, it becomes glaringly obvious that the plotline is going to lead to the mixed up letters, and so loses its narrative efficacy.
On balance, while I loved Kamali’s writing (with the exception of a her habit of repeating the character’s thoughts/concerns in quite a few places–again could be an editing issue), I felt a few issues could have been addressed to tighten the book up:
(1) Edit out some of the redundancies;
(2) Fill in the gaps–develop the time between the loss of Marigold and reconnecting with Bahman;
(3) Flesh out the story of the mixed letters at the end;
(4) Edit out the back story of Claire –which comes quite abruptly after we spend a lot of chapters on Roya and Bahman in Tehran, so much so that I spent the first few pages of that chapter trying to remember who Claire was;
(5) Flesh out or drop the side story of Bahman’s mother and Mr. Fakhri, i.e., why does Fakhri feel that he is directly to blame for Mrs. Aslan’s mental health issues? Besides the fact that he left her impregnated and to deal with the unwanted pregnancy on her own (it’s not clear whether he even knew about the pregnancy at the time), it seems quite a jump that she becomes suicidal 20+ years from the abortion.
I applaud Ms. Kamali and this is a solid effort. I loved the topic, the characters and the history of Iran. I do think, however, that better editing could have taken this book to the next level. That said, I will follow Ms. Kamali and see what she produces next!
Thank you NetGalley for the ARC copy in exchange for an honest review.