This sliver of a book has remained sandwiched between two bigger, more epic-looking classics, for a while. My experience of Anne Tyler’s novels is limited – I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award, a few years ago. It was amazing. But then I forgot about her.
Having read my way through all of my Christmas books, books that people have lent me, novels I ordered online and the pile that mum left for me – I decided to remove Tyler’s lonesome little novel from between those big, burly novels – and give it a go.
The story details two families – one Iranian, one America – each adopting a Korean daughter. The first scene is set in the airport, waiting to greet their daughters-to-be, and immediately the opposing cultural customs are examined.
The American family, the Donaldsons, arrive clad in name badges – depending on their place in the family: mom, dad, grandma etc. There is a swarm of them – buzzing and yelling and flaunting video cameras.
The Iranian family, the Yazdan’s, consists simply of the adoptive parents – Sami and Ziba – and Sami’s mother, Maryam. There are no flashing cameras, no badges, no cuddly toys – it is a comparatively civilised greeting ceremony.
A few weeks after the girls arrive in the states, the Donaldson family get hold of the Yazdan’s contact details and invite them over for a (seemingly) typically American party – a ceremonial raking of the leaves in their ‘back yard’.
Tyler presents the Donaldsons as all-American, white trainer-wearing, orange-tanned extroverts. The Yazdan’s are portrayed in quite the opposite way – self-contained, introverted, smartly-dressed and culturally more… interesting. But it becomes clear that living as Iranian immigrants in America (albeit two generations along for Sami and Ziba) creates feelings of isolation – and psychological cultural barriers that they can’t seem to break.
Bitsy, of the Donaldson family, decides that each year – the two families should meet to celebrate the girls’ arrival and have a party. These parties then become the markers for the novel’s plot. Held at the Donaldson’s one year – and the Yazdan’s the next – we’re invited to observe how each family lives, eats, loves and approaches social situations.
In between the parties various love stories, cultural obstacles and insights into the characters’ pasts are woven in, adding depth.
After a slow start, I realised that it was an intentionally slow novel. It is a simple story, but delves deep enough into each of the character’s psyches to keep the reader gripped. And the descriptions of Iranian food kept me somewhat interested – a glutton for descriptions of food. Excuse the pun.
This is a good novel to read as respite from more challenging books as it is fairly light but still managed to retain my concentration for a couple of lunchtime reading sessions.