This story within a story deals principally with the Turkish genocide of Armenians more than a century ago and the displacement that ensued.
Debut novelist Saroyan’s story begins in the present day in Istanbul with two former lovers, Armenian-American Mari Alexander and Turkish Selim Bayrak, who reconnect over a startling discovery: the diary of Ani Noroyan. It details her marriage to a master goldsmith and, as danger looms, her sending her 15-year-old son, Paul, on his own to Istanbul in 1895. There, he’s taken in by Taki Economides, a Greek executive chef in the German Embassy. Paul rises rapidly due to his obvious talent at preparing food. During this charmed period, he falls in love and marries the beautiful Vasso, an orphan whom the Economides have also taken in—but from the start, there’s something worrisome about the young woman. Eventually, anti-Armenian terror spreads from the eastern provinces to Istanbul, and Paul and his growing family must flee. A stopover in Marseille, France, is enticing, but America, the promised land, beckons. There, however, they experience one crushing hardship after another. Paul doesn’t speak English, and he’s forced to swallow his justifiable pride and start at the bottom of a new career, working at a textile job. Meanwhile, Vasso sulks; she refuses to learn English and won’t lift a finger to help the family—but she will seek out men to salve her vanity. Saroyan effectively draws on elements of her own Greek and Armenian family’s immigrant experiences while providing details of life in Istanbul—specifically, all the sights, sounds, aromas, rituals, the rambunctious family life in the Economides’ compound. She also depicts all the love that Paul has for Vasso—love that makes the days in America exquisitely painful as Paul begins to crumble under the strain. Along the way, she makes readers realize that although Vasso was troubled from an early age, it was really geopolitical forces beyond their control—that bitter gift of fate—that did her and Paul in.
A powerful novel that’s especially relevant in the current era of Middle Eastern displacement.