The Stationery Shop: Things as They Could Have Been

The Stationery Shop (2019)
By Marjan Kamali
Simon and Schuster, 307 pages.

Americans consistently ignore the lesson that they waste time fearing leftists when it’s those on the right who are the real danger. The Stationery Shop is set in Iran, mostly in 1953. That year Mohammad Mossadegh was elected prime minister in the hope he would bring democracy to Iran. He never got the chance; the CIA, British intelligence, royalists, and oil interests overthrew his government. This allowed the autocratic Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to launch brutal reprisals and cozy up to Western powers sucking the oil out of desert sands. In 1979, the Shah was overthrown, but by conservative mullahs led by the Ayatollah Khomeini who installed a theocracy that today makes Iran the fifth most-oppressive government on the planet.

You need to know this to appreciate Marjan Kamali’s novel. On the surface it’s Romeo and Juliet in which its principals succumb to fate rather than suicide, but it’s also a tantalizing look at what should have been on other levels. At its heart is Roya Joon Khanom, who grows up in comfort but not wealth, in a family headed by a father who works for the Shah but supports Mossadegh, a stay-at-home mother, one servant, and a younger sister named Zari. Paterfamilias Mehdi embodies Iran’s struggle between modernism and traditionalism. He wants his daughters to be educated and take command of their lives.

Roya is a curious girl who spends time in the novel’s namesake stationery shop, which also sells books, including those of Rumi, her favorite poet. She spends so much time there that she befriends its owner, Mr. Fahkri. It’s also where she meets and falls in love with Bahman Aslan. Roya’s family is thrilled by their romance, though Zari is skeptical because Bahman seems to love politics as much as he does Roya. She’s also more attuned to rumors Mossadegh will be overthrown. Bahman and Roya are hailed as the boy and girl who will change the world. That’s a heavy burden for anyone to carry.

A bigger obstacle still is Bahman’s widowed mother, who sees Roya as unworthy of her son. She’s also crazier than a cow chewing ergot, but insists that Bahman should marry Shahla, whose family is rich. (A flashback chapter set in 1916 reveals surprising things about Mrs. Aslan.) Opposition leads to an elopement plan, which is aided by Mr. Fahkri. When Roya shows up at Sephah Square where they are to meet, Bahman isn’t there. Even worse, she finds herself in a pro-Mossadegh rally violently broken up pro-Shah forces. Letters go back and forth and Roya is left feeling duped.

As Roya mopes, her father reads the political winds correctly and decides to send both of his daughters out of Iran to study in the United States at Mills College. Roya describes California as looking “like a toy that’s just been opened.” Both sisters unwrap new lives. Zari meets Jack Bishop, who dreams of being a poet, and Roya weds Walter Archer, who looks like comic book character Tintin but is steady and kind.

The Stationery Shop is, thus, stories of paths taken and not taken. It arcs from 1916 into 2013, when both Zari and Roya are old women. Roya knows what happened to Iran, but she has always wondered why Bahman never showed up. That mystery forms the basis for the last part of the novel. Betrayal, it seems, follows a twisted path.

The Stationery Shop is also about social class and the immigrant experience. The latter is often refracted through food and how spices and smells link to culture and memory. That’s not a device; we’ve long known that smell triggers memories. (Warning: American cuisine is lampooned.) It is, of course, an old narrative; immigrants everywhere–including American expatriates–tend to have one foot striding into the future and the other dragging behind in the past. 

I leave it to readers to determine whether The Stationery Shop is an exemplary work of literature, or merely a romance dressed in exotic clothing. I will say, though, that it goes down quickly and easily. Whatever else it might be, it's a good summer read. Once you’ve finished, imagine how the world would have been a better place had Mossadegh remained in power.

Rob Weir