This lyrical debut novel, an immigrant saga and coming-of-age story, provides a tantalizing look at Iran pre- and post-revolution.
It begins with a present-day reunion: Noor, sent to America to study when the Islamists took over in the 1970s, has returned to Tehran to visit her beloved father, Zod. She is accompanied by her teenage daughter, Lily—Noor and the girl’s father are divorced—who wants no part of the homecoming. The ailing Zod runs a diminished version of Café Leila, once a celebrated restaurant with an adjoining hotel and lush garden, where Noor and her brother grew up: “[It] contained their history, everything important had happened here,” the author writes. “It had been her entire world, an oasis where on hot summer afternoons they drank iced mint sherbets under a canopy of trees.” The book then flashes back, filling in the story of how Zod’s parents emigrated from Russia to Iran, his studies in Paris as a young man, and his blissfully happy marriage to Noor’s mother, Pari. It also traces Noor’s often lonely life as an émigré in northern California. In Tehran again, the focus shifts to Lily and her transition from a belligerent wild child to an almost grown-up who begins to embrace her Persian roots. There is drama aplenty in these pages—involving Pari’s untimely death, in particular—but everything feels authentic; the writing is precise and self-assured. The author, an Iranian émigré who became a chef in America (publishing a recipe-laced memoir, Maman's Homesick Pie, 2011), sprinkles her novel with sensuous descriptions of food, underlining its connection to memory. And she tells her story from multiple perspectives, creating sympathetic characters with rich inner lives. If the ending isn’t completely satisfying, it’s at least pleasantly unexpected.
Poignant and absorbing, the book explores the pull not only of family, but of the place we first call home.