I wasn't at all sure I'd like this book. Yes, I loved A Thousand Splendid Suns to bits, but that was in 2007 and I've grown a lot as a reader since then. And The Kite Runner, which I read a couple years later, I remember as a bit clunky. Happily, I have not outgrown Hosseini, and this book feels real, lacking the contrived scenarios of The Kite Runner.
And the Mountains Echoed is halfway between a novel and a short story collection. Each of its nine chapters is told through the eyes of a different character, some in first person and some in third, and while each chapter is connected in some way to the others, many of these characters never meet. Pari, who is the closest this book comes to a protagonist, is the focus of two or three chapters, but appears only briefly or not at all in several others. The story spans 60 years and is set mostly in Afghanistan, though there are also chapters set in the U.S., France and Greece.
The structure is a great strength--each chapter tells a complete story, and some are quite hard-hitting--though it requires more engagement from the reader than your typical novel, as we must re-orient ourselves with each new chapter. But there are common themes running throughout. Much of the book focuses on caretakers: it begins with parents and their young children, then moves on to siblings, to young people just starting their own families, and to professional caretakers, and toward the end it progresses to adult children and their elderly parents. None of these relationships are simple: some of the characters can't handle caring for a sick or disabled person, not because they're evil but because they're flawed, as people are. And those who do stay and devote themselves to others often deal with anger and resentment. But it's not all negative; strong relationships form and several characters turn out better than we might have expected.
Of course, Hosseini's genius is in his ability to tap into readers' emotions--even jaded readers like me who are on the lookout for emotional manipulation. And this book is no exception. If I had to guess I'd say it works because it feels honest; no one is all good or bad, just regular, imperfect people in all-too-real situations. The 22-page chapter about Parwana and Masooma made me care more than did several full-length novels I've read lately. As did the chapter about Idris, though in a different way: it's ugly in its honesty; I wanted to be angry with him but it would be all too easy to become him.
I could talk about the more literary aspects of this book, but that isn't really the point. The character development is good, and the writing is good. There's some strong imagery, and life in all of the places and times portrayed in the book feels credible and real. But what really makes this book shine isn't so much literary merit as the ability to evoke strong feelings and get readers to care about the characters--and while it won't work for everyone, it certainly worked for me.
Not to say there aren't some issues: sometimes Hosseini seems to take the safe way out (as with the celibate gay man), and that tiresome trope where two women who once had a close relationship fight over a man rears its ugly head not once but twice (for extra creepy weirdness, the second time involves a woman and her 14-year-old daughter). And because each chapter focuses on a different character, several only peripheral in the stories of the others, most people will have a least favorite: mine is the chapter about Adel, the son of a former jihadi fighter turned drug trafficker and philanthropist. The father and his role in the community are interesting, but I could have done without Adel's coming-of-age story. Still, every chapter adds a crucial link to the story.
Ultimately, this was a pleasant surprise, and a powerful one. I recommend it, with this advice: clear some time in your schedule, and keep the tissues handy.