A literary novel tells the story of an American woman’s involvement with a family of Pakistani refugees.
Tillie Marsden of Bishop Grove, Oregon, has an altruistic bent that she attempts to satisfy through various activities: gardening, working for the American Cancer Society, and volunteering at her church. Her husband, the fiscally conservative though generally benign workaholic Bill, doesn’t really understand his wife’s drive. Her stepson, Jacob, a surly college student who hasn’t yet moved out, offers Tillie mostly silence. Through her pastor, Tillie is connected to a family of newly resettled Pakistani refugees in order to help them assimilate into life in Bishop Grove. Attempting (not always successfully) to check her prejudices at the door, Tillie enters the lives of Bahram, Mira, and their seven young children. They don’t offer Tillie much in the way of their backstory, and she is too polite to ask, though she can’t help but pick up on some tensions in their household. Bahram, a former translator for a U.S. contractor, is enthusiastic about American life, but Mira and the children seem less so. “Didn’t Bahram notice that his wife seemed unhappy?” Tillie wonders. “Can’t he see that there’s something not right with the kids?” Her interactions with Bahram and Mira cause Tillie to begin to question her own (third) marriage and the struggles she has with her blended family—struggles that she perceived as American but which may in fact be universal. Tillie’s association with this new family will force new perspectives on the other relationships in her life, though not always in the way one would expect.
Daniels (Venus Looks Down on a Prairie Vole, 2016, etc.) writes in an elegant, fluid prose that keeps close to the thoughts of his characters as they observe and interrogate the people around them: “As he continued to laud all things American, or at least Oregonian, Tillie felt restless. Bahram’s affectations were taking on a bitter flavor, suggesting a back-story that was less about greener grass and more about corrupt humanity.” Tillie is particularly prone to second-guessing the words and motives of others, creating a mood of tense mystery in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward tale. The deep dive that the author takes into the twinned lives of the two families is an admirable attempt to figure out something about America’s view of itself and the outside world. Even so, the book does not offer much in the way of plot (particularly for a novel that is 350 pages). Much of the narrative hinges on unasked questions and misunderstandings, resulting in a rather shapeless and unsatisfying final act. Tillie is well-constructed and emotionally coherent, with motivations that are believably rooted in her personal history. Readers’ connections to her should manage to sustain them for most of the story. By the end, though, they will likely wish that Tillie was pushed a little more (and more often) into situations that would dramatize her inner conflicts on a larger scale.
A well-written but underplotted tale about family dynamics and interpersonal relationships.