In Iranian-American Amirrezvani's lushly orchestrated debut, a comet signals misfortune to the remote 17th-century Persian village where the nameless narrator lives modestly but happily with her parents, both of whom expect to see the 14-year-old married within the year. Her fascination with rug making is a pastime they indulge only for the interim, but her father's untimely death prompts the girl to travel with her mother to the city of Isfahan, where the two live as servants in the opulent home of an uncle—a wealthy rug maker to the Shah. The only marriage proposal now in the offing is a three-month renewable contract with the son of a horse trader. Teetering on poverty and shame, the girl weaves fantasies for her temporary husband's pleasure and exchanges tales with her beleaguered mother until, having mastered the art of making and selling carpets under her uncle's tutelage, she undertakes to free her mother and herself. (from Publisher's Weekly)
I picked this one up on vacation, spurred on by positive reviews on other historical fiction blogs and my own eagerness to learn a bit more about Persian culture and history. I spend a lot of my working life reading about the Muslim World (in particular, Afghanistan) and was hoping this would illuminate my understanding of a time and place in Middle Eastern history.
The novel partly succeeded for me on that front. I very much wish I had read the rug-making parts of this novel prior to traveling in Turkey and Tunisia last year - I gained a vastly deepened respect for the art of rug-making and suspect that I would have come back to the U.S. with a couple of samples if I had read this book before! Amirrezvani brilliantly brings to life the craft of rug-making, the passion an apprentice feels for color and design and the skill it takes to become a true master.
I was less impressed by the author's skill in bringing the central character/narrator - an impoverished girl who travels to the city and learns rug-making with her uncle - to life. She never felt like a truly real person to me and - at times - could be quite annoying with her willfullness. I felt a bit betrayed by the opening chapter in which the girl (at some undetermined point in the future) looks back upon her life. I got the sense that the book would cover a much wider swath of time and follow all the twists and turns in the narrator's personal growth. Amirrezvani leaves the reader hanging at the first interesting turn in events.
Instead, we're burdened with a tale of signeh. I was already familiar with the custom - common in Shi'ite Iran - of men and women contracting temporary marriages. Perhaps readers who are not familiar with the custom will find this element of the book interesting but I was bored by the predictable plot line. The narrator at first fears her husband, then grows confident and excited by their physical attraction before realizing that she is being used. The book settles into a dulling rhythm - the narrator hooks a rug, the narrator visits her husband for a passionate encounter, then she goes back to hooking rugs. It makes for quite possibly the dullest middle third of any book I've read in quite some time.
Eventually, the narrator's circumstances change and the book picks up some speed. The proceedings turn out to have a very modern sensibility, with the narrator finding her own voice Oprah-style. Just when the next stage in her development begins (and this is where I would be really interested to read on), the book stops. Each of the chapters ends with some sort of action that leads to the telling of the story. I found these stories interesting but suspect the author ultimately felt the need to pad a weak plot with greater meaning and depth through the telling of traditional Persian tales.
This novel has some of the most positive reviews I've seen for a book on Amazon so it may work for others who are interested in learning more about the customs of 17th century Iran wrapped around a story of female empowerment. I don't regret reading this book but I certainly wish it had lived up to its considerable potential.