Marjan Kamali’s The Stationery Shop (Gallery Books 2019) is a heartbreaking novel of first love and lost love – a novel of how fate is a fickle mistress.
The novel opens in 2013 in New England. Roya is an old woman, “nearly American,” who first left Iran over fifty years ago. Walter, her steadfast and sure husband, is still with her and she is happy. She’s all but forgotten about Bahman, the young man who stole her heart with his pretty eyes and prettier words, and left her standing in a square, in the midst of a political coup, on the day they were to wed. But a little nostalgia and a trip to local stationery store bring him and all the memories back.
The novel shifts to 1953 Tehran and Mr. Fakhri’s stationery shop. Roya is a teenager in love with words, especially words about love. In his shop, she surrounds herself with poetry. Her father wants her to be a scientist, but she’s a romantic at heart. One Tuesday, she meets Bahman in the stationery shop and the world stands still. He is a political activist, an idealist who believes in the fragile democracy his country is building, and his passion ignites her fire.
Against his mother’s wishes, they become engaged. The political turmoil in Iran becomes violent as the attempts to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister increase. The country is divided, bleeding around them, when Bahman disappears. They begin exchanging letters through books that Mr. Fakhri provides. One letter tells her to meet him at the square, that he wants to marry her immediately and not wait. There are violent demonstrations all around when she goes to meet her love, but she will walk through gunfire for this man. Only he doesn’t show.
A letter comes later telling her that he was sorry for leading her on, and that he is going to marry the woman his mother had chosen for him when they were children. Roya is devastated. Her father, seeing her heartbreak but also seeing what is happening in his country, encourages Roya and her sister to go to America to study. They go, and both build lives in the States.
Decades later, Bahman is suddenly back in her life, and Roya wants answers. She wants to know why he didn’t show up that day. Why he broke her heart. And to tell him she forgives him Roya’s mother always told her that fate was written on one’s forehead, and she knew Bahman was her fate. But fate is fickle, and she didn’t understand that perhaps everything happened according to plan.
I’ve always found stories of someone “finding” their “first” and “true” love again later in life the most heartbreaking because it’s often done in such a way to invalidate the lives the couple lived while apart. Kamali avoids this by showing how full and complete Roya’s life was, how her biggest heartbreak was not Bahman, and how much she does love Walter and the life they’ve built.
The resolution and the answer as to why Bahman didn’t show up initially seems contrived and dissatisfying, but it is fitting that a letter is how Roya would find out the truth.
This story of a young love during Iran’s coup d’état in 1953 is just as much the story of Bahman’s mother – after all, it started in 1916 with the sweetest of melons and a young man who did unspeakable things.
Fate… she has a slow burn.
Read this book.
For the romance. For the history. For the culture. For the food.
For the fact that we are forever more alike than we are different. Read this book