It is the first time in my entire life that the shah is no longer the ruler. I have a huge math test today, but I feel like my brain has just frozen. I wish my dad could write a note: Please excuse Cindy from the test today. Our country just had a revolution.
—It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, by Firoozeh Dumas
It’s the summer of 1978, and eleven-year-old Zomorod—call her Cindy—Yousefzadeh is about to move again, for the fourth time since she was born. Because of her father’s engineering job, the family has moved from Abadan, Iran, to Compton, California; back to Iran, and then back to Compton; and now, from Compton to Newport Beach... just in time for middle school.
Socially, she’s trying to reinvent her image—in Iran, being smart is regarded as cool, in California, not so much—and at the moment, more than anything else, she wants a puka shell necklace and a bean bag chair. But she’s also kept busy at home: Cindy’s bilingual and her mother is not, so Cindy has to act as translator, from English to Persian and back again, on a daily basis. It’s a lot of responsibility, and she’s getting more and more frustrated with what she sees as her mother’s refusal to learn English.
Then comes the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and after that, the Iran hostage crisis—and Cindy watches from afar as her country begins to become entirely unfamiliar, while at the same time, her more immediate surroundings are starting to feel less and less welcoming.
Reading this book makes for a completely joyful experience. Dumas does a beautiful job of capturing a specific age and a specific place and a specific time and a specific experience: of showing the bumpy road to finding a solid group of friends, of capturing how it feels to be The Only One In The Room, what a first crush feels like, what it’s like for one person living within and between two different cultures, constantly keeping two sets of cultural rules and beauty ideals and idioms in mind.
Historical fiction set in the near-past can be especially difficult, but Dumas pulls it off: She incorporates lots of details about the era—Cindy’s love of her banana-flavored Bonne Bell Lip Smacker necklace, for example—but she does it in a way that allows them to add to the ‘70s feel, rather than as a shortcut to creating a ‘70s feel. For the most part, the information and explanation of the history behind the changing politics in Iran and in the United States is nicely integrated as well, mostly through conversations in classrooms—and again, those scenes also show the frustration and embarrassment and pressure than can come from being the only one in the room.
This book made me laugh out loud. A lot. From her observations about dodge ball, to the footnotes in which she speaks directly to the people she’s talking about, as in, “Note to Bill Garrett: You are a dork, forever and always. And your first name means “shovel” in Persian.” From her descriptions of her down-the-street neighbor’s amazing sartorial choices, to the scenes in which her father channels Freaks and Geeks’ Mr. Weir. (Spoiler: Every time she approaches him about the family getting a pet, he tells a story about someone he knew who tragically lost an eye.)
But even with the light tone, Dumas grapples with a whole lot of tough stuff. With Cindy’s mother’s depression, for one. With the always-annoying, often-hurtful microaggressions committed by well-meaning but largely-clueless people in the first half of the book, to the climate of outright hostility and fear in the second half of the book. And it’ll be very easy for readers to draw parallels from Cindy’s experience in the 1970s to the modern day—the hateful bumper stickers and tee-shirts that she describes are dead-ringers for ones I’ve seen in 2016.
Nutshell: Come for the laughs, stay for the rest. And then read her other books—at least, that’s my plan.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.