This debut novel opens in Brooklyn, where Anwar and Hashi Saleem have raised their beautiful, rebellious daughter, Charu, and their quiet, boyish niece, Ella, as sisters after Ella's parents were murdered in Bangladesh.
Every detail in this rich novel is evocative of transformation—the family garden, the products Anwar makes by hand for his botanical apothecary, and the home he rebuilt from disrepair, the beauty salon Hashi runs, where she drags Ella into an ice-cold bath before chopping off her hair and dressing her in her father's clothes. Anwar tells Ella, "Each seed tells this story: Everything that happens is already written." It's 2003, the year of the famous New York City blackout, only two years post-9/11. The Saleems had immigrated to New York 20 years earlier, after having lived through war in Bangladesh, and the roiling atmosphere of Brooklyn in the hot summer of 2003 makes it clear that the past demands to be reckoned with. Ella returns home from college to find Maya, a friend of Charu's, sleeping in her bed. She takes to the garden hammock, where she suffers hallucinations while working with her uncle to create a perfect circle of beauty. Throughout the novel, taboo and transgressive impulses (cousin loves cousin, husband loves neighbor, niece loves uncle, girl loves disappeared friend) are referred to as "misdirected love." As though to knock the misguided lovers back on track, violence and loss at home and abroad force them to reconsider where they direct their love. Reckoning with the past leads to a more fully realized present. The novel is a sensitive and subtle exploration of the experience of gender nonconformity across cultures.
Though Ella emerges as the most changed character, this is more than her story—it's a transcontinental, transgenerational tale of a family and its secrets.