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Merle

Merle

The Septembers of Shiraz - Dalia Sofer This book is both less and more than I expected. From a pure entertainment standpoint, I was disappointed; not so much because of the pacing (which is on the slow side, although the book is a quick read overall), but because I was hoping for a book that read like historical fiction, while this one read more like a contemporary family story--with the twist that the father is a political prisoner. Nothing objectively wrong with that, and if you like modern-day stories about families you'll probably like it better than I did, but it isn't my thing. At any rate, I was rewarded by a book that turned out to be much more thought-provoking than I expected.

The Septembers of Shiraz is about a Jewish Iranian family: in 1981, following the revolution overthrowing the Shah, the father, Isaac, is arrested on a bogus suspicion of being an Israeli spy. His wife, Farnaz, and 9-year-old daughter, Shirin, are left to deal without him in Tehran, while the college-age son, Parviz, is in New York. It quickly becomes clear that the revolutionaries' problem with Isaac isn't really that he's Jewish, it's that he's very rich. Which makes for a much more nuanced story: hating someone because of their religion is just stupid, while hating someone for living extravagantly next to others who have nothing, for willingly turning a blind eye to a regime that tortures and kills dissenters as long as it's good for business.... well, that's much more complicated.

So what we get is a story about the effects of wealth and privilege, and what happens when people who are accustomed to that lose it. But what this means is that we get a story about some often insufferable characters bemoaning the loss of their extravagant lifestyle and having great difficulty understanding why that lifestyle upset other people. (It's worth noting that the book was published in 2007, when the reading public was perhaps more sympathetic to the woes of oppressed rich people than we are today.)

And so despite all their travails brought on by the new regime (the dramatization of which occupies most of the book), it's quite difficult to like these people, the mother and son in particular. Even at the end of his character arc--and no, I won't tell where in the book that is!--Isaac self-righteously wonders, "Why the constant indignation at a man who dares to live well?" Farnaz "feels a deep pain" for the loss of "shameless extravagance" (no pain for people who actually have to deal with poverty or anything like that, though) and is annoyed at the housekeeper speaking more familiarly to her than she would have dared pre-revolution. Parviz is nothing but a spoiled brat: in New York and without money (why he suddenly has none at all is never explained), he lies around watching TV and thinking about how he wasn't born to do things like clean up after himself and take a part-time job. (Unfortunately, whining and flirting with his landlord's daughter is all Parviz ever does; his chapters are exceedingly dull.) Even Shirin is keenly aware that her current playmate is not someone she'd have befriended before the revolution shut down the private schools.

And it's not just the sense that they're better than other people; the Amins are so used to privilege that they don't seem to fully understand the political climate that they're living in. Even after Isaac has been arrested and detained for months, even after Farnaz has been unable to stop his former employees from looting the business, the characters are shocked and outraged to discover that their beach house has been confiscated; I was only astonished by their astonishment. But denial is a very human response.

Having difficult characters doesn't make a bad book, and Sofer's accomplishment is impressive in light of the fact that the novel is semi-autobiographical: she's a Jewish Iranian who fled to the U.S. at age 10. One might expect that she'd be wholeheartedly on the family's side, portraying them as innocent victims of an evil government, but while her sympathies are clearly with the family, the book is not that simple. While the focus is very closely on the Amins, a few characters who sympathize with the revolution do get to tell their stories; while the Amins try to portray their hiring employees and servants as an act of charity, one of Isaac's employees calls Farnaz out on this. I think she went a bit far with the scene where the characters talked about how Isaac hired Habibeh as their housekeeper because he saw her begging on the street and felt sorry for her, though. I mean, really? Who would choose their housekeeper that way? Wouldn’t you want references for somebody you’re going to put in a position of trust? And Isaac doesn’t seem to support any charitable causes or donate money to anyone--up until his “donation” that’s actually a bribe, of course--so I didn’t buy that he was the kind of guy who would do this, if there is anyone who would do this. There were so many poor people in Tehran and he didn't seem interested in doing anything for any of the rest of them. At any rate, creating jobs is all well and good, but don’t make it sound like you’re doing someone this huge favor by hiring them to make you tea.

Briefly, then: the plot is interesting, although a bit slow-paced and somewhat dragging in the middle (and Parviz's chapters are deadly boring throughout). The character development is decent, and the portrayal of the prison and its effects on the inmates is especially interesting. The setting is a bit sketchily drawn; I didn't get a strong sense of place or learn much about Iranian life or culture. The writing style is pretty good, especially given that this is a first novel. The dialogue is decent for the most part. The author does a good job of getting into the heads of all four members of the family; I found them all equally convincing, and given that both genders and a wide age range are represented, that's a feat in itself.

Ultimately, I didn't enjoy this book the way I'd hoped to, but its treatment of class issues was quite thought-provoking and had me thinking for days afterwards, and I don't want to penalize it too much for not being what I'd hoped. So, 3.5 stars.