Book Club: The Septembers of Shiraz

This month, the MC book club gets into The Septembers of Shiraz, about one family's struggle to survive in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. Time to crack the crisp, new paperback edition? First, see what we had to say about it.

THE PLOT: On a bright September day in 1981, Iranian jeweler Isaac Amin is imprisoned for the simple crime of being a Jew under the Ayatollah's regime, leaving his wife and two children to cope with his disappearance. First-time novelist Dalia Sofer does the House of Sand and Fog one better by weaving a story from four perspectives, offering a unique glimpse into the emotional fallout from political upheaval and what it's like to know you're about to lose everything.

LAUREN (ARTICLES EDITOR): I'm in love with this book. There were so many moments when I wanted to cut a line out and stick it on the fridge. When Sofer writes, "Absence . . . is death's cousin"-wow. But the title didn't do it justice.

YING (BEAUTY DIRECTOR) : Yeah...when I first saw the book I thought I was reading a nice light romance like A Year in Provence. She's a really beautiful storyteller. In the beginning, when Isaac, who has just been arrested, is on the motorcycle with the guard and she writes, "The bitter smell of unwashed hair made him gag"-I really got that.

LAUREN: Yeah, she didn't shy away from the gross stuff. And yet, it wasn't vulgar.

JESSICA (ASSOCIATE EDITOR:) I really liked it but it took me until chapter five to get into it - the parts about the son's life in New York. I could relate to his experience a little more. And I loved how she made parallels between his life here and his father's imprisonment. You know, when Parviz is looking up from his basement apartment and sees the shoes of all the people above him, and that's the same image his father sees from his prison cell - like, there's a whole other level of separation going on there.

LAUREN: You know what was great? The writing wasn't self-conscious at all. I never felt like she was faking anything.

YAEL (ASSOCIATE EDITOR) : Well, she lived it. She was born in Iran and then had to leave when she was 10. And her father was really imprisoned. And apparently, she also listened to recordings of prison interrogations from that time. I mean, she must have been dredging up a lot of old feelings. It couldn't have been easy to write. I wonder how much of the rest of it was autobiographical. How much of the daughter's experience was really her own? ...What did you guys think about the parents' marriage? It was so complex!

LAUREN: How interesting was that? That it wasn't neat, it wasn't perfect - even after he'd almost died. When Isaac said he had that perfect diamond, and he didn't know if there was anyone perfect enough to give it to - even is wife. It was quite fucked up.

YING: How about when the mom says she fell in love with Isaac because he was a poet, but then she demanded all of these material things and turned him into this boring business-slash-family-man type?

JESSICA: Right. And then, looking back, she realizes she misses the artist in him.

YAEL: It was sad the way their relationship withered over time. They both suffered from the apathy that comes when your entire world crumbles around you. They don't really have each other, nor do they have the energy to deal with the fact that they don't have each other.

JESSICA: I do wish Sofer went into his background as a poet a little more - or to hear poetry from him in his thoughts while he was in prison or something.

LAUREN: Even when Isaac finally gets out of prison, their reunion was so anticlimactic!

JESSICA: I mean, I do believe that she was genuinely happy that he was back home but there was that moment where she also realizes that her husband "will from now on have the monopoly on grief." Her suffering will never compare to his. But you know, I didn't think the mother is the most likeable character either.

LAUREN: Well, she's this classist bitch.

JESSICA: God! That moment in the kitchen where their housemaid, Habibeh, is telling her about how her nephew is growing up, that soon he'll be big enough to marry her daughter one day. And Farnaz just smiles. And later Habbibeh comes back to her and says, I was kidding. I know you're sitting there all smug thinking that would never happen.

YING: Or how about when Habbibeh starts talking about their friendship, and she's like, Is what we have, a friendship? Sure, I know how you like your tea but do I really know what's going on with you?

LAUREN: Oh my God, they were cutting each other with razor blades. But you also think maybe Habibbeh's a bad guy too so you don't know if you should feel bad for her.

JESSICA: The thing with the mom is that to other people she comes off as very materialistic. But when she started explaining why she ascribed so much meaning to these things, you realized that to her it was much more - that it was really about holding on to those memories of those places where she got those objects, it was really about knowing exactly where she was standing when she selected that vase. It was the story behind the objects and I connected with that. It's why I love vintage stuff - the story behind something really gets to me.

LAUREN: What about the prison scenes? I was thinking about Abu Ghraib. I was thinking about how barbaric torture is, especually when Sofer describes Isaac's lashing. And it's just so random and pointless and brutal. You want that scene to be required reading for the Bushes of the world. Show them how torture is used by bad guys who are trying to force their ideology on someone, and that it never, ever works.

YING: Right, it's not like Isaac was ever tipped to the point where he said "yes, I'm a Zionist spy"

YAEL: But it does work in that it break down his spirit. Which was the point. But one thing Sofer did really well was show us why the family didn't leave immediately after the Iranian revolution. It's easy to ask in retrospect, why didn't you leave before? You should have known, you should have seen it coming. Which is what we always say about the Jews in Germany just before the Holocaust. But she really made you understand that for them, it was this very slow realization that things weren't going to get better.

LAUREN: I can't imagine what it's like to lose everything...

YAEL: When I went to hear Sofer speak last year, she said this book started as an emotion: loss. Can you imagine what it's like to have to leave everything - everything - behind?

YING: Another thing I liked was there's that moment when one character says: "Once you leave your country and start moving around there is no telling where you'll go next." I thought it was so true. Not that my situation was like theirs, but I've actually moved around a lot. And it is really hard to pick up and leave the first time. But then once you get going, you realize you can set up again and things will be okay. But the first time is daunting.

LAUREN: The funny thing is that even though they do get out of Iran, we don't get a happy ending.

JESSICA: See, I thought there was a sense of optimism throughout. At the end, when the parents and daughter have snuck out of the country, at least you know that they finally found one another again-literally and figuratively.

YAEL: But their journey hasn't really ended. The sequel would be assimilation in a new country-starting all over.