Memoirist Rodriguez (Kabul Beauty School, 2007) returns to Afghanistan, this time with a novel about an American woman running a coffee shop in Kabul.
Sunny, 38, came to Afghanistan with her boyfriend Tommy six years ago. He has become a mercenary doing work he can’t talk about. While he’s gone, she runs the Kabul Coffee House with the help of her worker, the philosophical Bashir Hadi, her feisty landlady Halajan and Halajan’s son, Ahmet. Free-thinking Halajan has sent her daughter to the more liberal safety of Germany, has secretly cut her hair short, wears jeans and smokes cigarettes in private, but Ahmet takes a far more conservative approach to the Koran and its teachings. He is particularly suspicious of his mother’s relationship with the tailor Rashif, although both are widowed. In fact, Rashif does pass regular love letters to Halajan, unaware that she cannot read. Then Sunny takes in Yazmina, a young widow who was ripped from her village by men who planned to prostitute her until they realized she was pregnant. Yazmina tries to keep her condition a secret, but both Sunny and Halajan guess the truth and protect her; a pregnant widow could be charged with adultery. Meanwhile, Sunny flirts with her customer Jack, a debonair married American contractor who helps her arrange Wednesday-night speakers to drum up more business. New customers include Candace, an American statesman’s ex-wife raising funds for her new Afghan lover’s orphanage, and Isabel, a British journalist who suspects the orphanage may be a terrorist front. Ahmet finds himself drawn to Yazmina’s beauty and goodness. Sunny and Jack fall in love. Yazmina teaches Halajan to read, and Rashif befriends Ahmet. Candace and Isabel face brutal truths that end in both tragedy and spiritual rebirth.
Rodriguez paints a vivid picture of Afghan culture and understands the uncomfortable role Americans play in political upheavals. But ultimately her cozy sentimentality undercuts the elements of harsh realism, as if Maeve Binchy had written The Kite Runner.