Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Debut Novel Features Young Women in Pre-Revolution Iran

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Debut Novel Features Young Women in Pre-Revolution Iran

Article excerpt

In "The Girl From the Garden," the tumultuous history of a wealthy Jewish family in pre-Revolution Iran is contained in the day of an elderly woman in Los Angeles. As Mahboubeh tends her garden, feeds the birds and turns through her photo albums, her family's tortured history comes to her in a Proustian rush. Parnaz Foroutan's debut novel isn't the memoir of an educated, willful young woman fleeing Iran in 1977, but the story of the collapsing family she was born into, undone both by grief and passion and by an anti-Semitic society.

The novel revolves around Rakhel, Mahboubeh's aunt, a baker's daughter married to Asher Malacouti, the wealthiest Jew in Kermanshah. Unable to conceive, Rakhel watches with envy as her sister-in-law begins her family, and she grows desperate as Asher becomes increasingly violent and threatens to bring a second wife into the family. By 16, Rakhel is already a failed wife. Through Mahboubeh's nonlinear leaps from her own memories of Iran to her imaginings of the family before her tumultuous birth, we see Rakhel as a vulnerable and desperate teenage girl, as the harsh, unsentimental matriarch she becomes, and as an eccentric widow dying alone in an attic apartment in Tehran.

The frame narration offers the reader a riveting portrait of Rakhel, but ultimately has limited success justifying why the novel was written in first person. Foroutan makes clear how we inherit our family's griefs, how we are haunted by and punished for their wounds and unfulfilled desires. What's less clear is why Mahboubeh is in Los Angeles, how she managed to flee Iran, and the shape of the life she made for herself as an immigrant. Her interruptions are sometimes tedious interludes in an otherwise suspenseful story. Mahboubeh again making tea. Mahboubeh taking a nap.

Perhaps this is because there's already so much making tea and lying in bed: "The heat of the afternoon pushes against the windows, the light filtering through the green leaves, their shadows dancing against the walls. …

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