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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Thousand Splendid Suns


*** A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. General fiction.









This is the second book for our neighborhood book club, and this time I've finished it in plenty of time (our book club will meet next Wednesday). I'd really enjoyed The Kite Runner, but I wouldn't have picked this one up if it hadn't been for the book club. Call me shallow, but I read the paper and listen to the news--I have a good idea of all the terrible things that are going on in the world. I prefer my leisure reading to be less depressing.

And A Thousand Splendid Suns was depressing. When I went to bed last night, I was about halfway through the book. I'd intended to read for a half hour and then turn out the light, but it just kept getting more and more depressing, and sleep was out of the question until I finished it... and even then, I needed a little... er... help... from Carl to wind down enough to sleep.

Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man, and for her first 15 years, she lived a secluded life in a hut with her mother.

Laila is the daughter and youngest child of a former schoolteacher, who lived in the city in relative comfort for her first 14 years.

Both women loved their fathers and had difficult relationships with their mothers. Mariam's mother was a bitter epileptic; Laila's was depressed and focused on her older sons who'd gone off to war. They both ended up married to the same abusive man. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The first part of the book focuses on Mariam's life until shortly after she's given in marriage to the much-older shoemaker, Rasheed. Then it abruptly changes to Laila's life, and we hear nothing more about Mariam until the third part when the two of them are together. I'm not sure what a better way of handling it would have been, but this disjointed style kept me from really bonding with either of the main characters. Sympathizing, yes; but I wasn't really involved with either of them.

Which may have been just as well, because Mariam's life was just so unremittingly depressing. She did idolize her father, but underneath her excitement was the unmistakable evidence that she was denied everything his legitimate children took for granted, everything except an hour or two of his time every week.

Laila's life was less bleak, at least at first. True, her mother was neglectful and openly preferred her absent sons to her daughter, and she sneered and disparaged her husband, but Laila and her father had each other, and Laila also had her best friend Tariq.

Once Mariam and Laila's lives intersected, things just kept getting worse and worse for both of them, with even the few bright spots provided by the children overshadowed by negative events and the difficulty of caring for them.

Kudos again to Hosseini for providing what felt like--from this outsider's perspective, anyway--a fairly balanced view of the position of women under Afghanistan's various governments from 1964 to the present. It was definitely interesting reading about places I'd previously only heard of from the news. But while the larger issues felt well-balanced, the more personal ones didn't. Rasheed in particular suffered from being a character type. Maybe that was intentional, because we're seeing him from the women's perspective, and maybe that's how they saw him, but I'd have liked to know more about him than that he had a god-complex. Everyone is the hero of his or her own story. I'd have liked to see a little of how Rasheed saw himself--more than as his wives' lord and master. Even the brief descriptions of his previous wife and child aren't all that enlightening.

Then there's the ending. I'm not going to give it away, but the book first gets incredibly bleak, then has a sunny, happy, hopeful ending, that didn't seem to fit the story at all. Not that I wanted an "everyone dies, life sucks" ending, but perhaps a little more of what the entire book needed: balance.

Again, no, I'm not hiding my head in the sand or denying that life is incredibly bleak, sad, depressing, and dangerous for far too many people in the world. I wouldn't find it realistic for Mariam, or even Laila, to start a women's revolution or even succeed in forcing their husband to treat them better. But one thing I tend to expect when I read more serious books is to gain some insight into humanity, and I didn't get any more insight from A Thousand Splendid Suns than I have from any number of dry news reports about the plight of women in Afghanistan. I didn't learn how women would cope emotionally, nor did I learn about the men's motivations in subjugating them.

A-ha. I knew if I kept typing, I'd find my point sooner or later. Neither of the main characters really changed in the course of the book. Oh, Mariam did find some happiness with Laila and the children, but it didn't change her. And Laila, depsite all she went through, didn't change at all--she altered her behavior to deal with changing circumstances, but once circumstances improved, she was the same person she was before. And that would be forgivable if I'd gained some insight from their stories, but I didn't.

Mariam and Laila ended the book as the same people they were when they started it, and so did I.


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