The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali
Genre: Romance, Historical fiction
Content warning: non-graphic depictions of violence
The Stationery Shop (336 pages, 2020) is the second novel from Turkish born, Iranian writer Marjan Kamali. The Stationery Shop was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2019, a Boston Globe best-seller and one of Newsweek’s 30 Best Summer Books. Set against the political upheaval of 1953 Iran, the third person narrative tells the story of Roya Khanom, an ambitious but idealistic teenage girl, who meets and falls in love Bahman Aslan, a passionate pro-democracy activist, at a stationery shop/bookstore they both frequent. A few months after their first meeting, the couple hatch a plan to elope, but when Bahman never shows up at the town square where they are supposed to meet, the couple lose contact and never see each other again until several decades later.
The Stationery Shop begins in a cold New England winter in 2013, with 77-year-old Roya and her husband Walter discussing her visit to Bahman, who is now living at an assisted senior facility close to their home in Boston. The last time Roya saw Bahman was five decades ago, in their home city of Tehran, when they were both 17-years-old. But now, after having “squished that boy out of her mind for decades”, moving to a new country, building a life with Walter and raising a child, “she could finally ask him why he had left her here in the middle of the square”.
The novel then flashes back to 1953 with Roya and her younger sister Zari at home with their parents in Tehran and her father voices his support for embattled Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, “We’ll be a full democracy in no time with Mossadegh leading us.” During this period in Iran’s history, political polarization is high and it even seeps into the girls’ school life, with students dividing themselves into rival groups that mirror the country’s political climate: the “pro-king girls” who support the country’s unpopular Shah; the “pro-communist girls” who were often accused of being in “traitorous collusion with Russia” and; the “pro-prime minister girls” who support PM Mossadegh. Tired of politics and wanting to avoid the hordes of boys who descend on the girls’ school “to linger by the gates at dismissal time”, Roya finds escape in the Stationery Shop across the street from her school: “it was the perfect retreat of quiet and learning.”
One day at the Stationery Shop, a boy her own age enters the store whistling, looking completely out of place “with his stride and confident look”. After collecting a pile of papers from Mr. Fakhri, the store’s proprietor, the boy turns to leave but then, he looks directly at Roya and says: “I am fortunate to meet you.” When Roya asks Mr. Fakhri about the young man, Mr. Fakhri replies, “That is the boy who wants to change the world”. After several weeks of inclandestine meetings at the Stationery Shop, Roya and Bahman fall in love. With Bahman, Roya starts to see an entirely different side of Tehran, far outside the sheltered world she inhabits with her sister. Roya meets Bahman for dates at the western style Café Ghanadi, where Bahman introduces her to pastries, and takes her to house parties where boys and girls intermingle and dance the tango. Soon the two young lovers become engaged, much to the delight of Roya’s parents who love Bahman, and the disappointment of Bahman’s mother, who wants Bahman to marry the daughter of a high-status family that is closely allied to the Shah (Iranian King), and dislikes Roya’s working class background.
But despite her snide remarks to Roya and her emotional manipulation of Bahman, the two lovers forge ahead with their wedding plans until Bahman and his family disappear without a trace not long after their engagement party. Distraught and confused, Roya turns to Mr. Fakhri for help finding Bahman. Although Mr. Fakhri is unable to tell Roya where her fiancé has gone, Mr. Fakhri agrees to exchange secret letters between the young couple and soon Roya and Bahman hatch a plan to elope. Their plan is to meet at Sepah Square and from there go to the Office of Marriage and Divorce to get their marriage license, but when Roya arrives at the square, there are already thousands of people protesting (and counter-protesting) the overthrow of PM Mossadegh in a coup orchestrated by the CIA and MI6 (you can learn more about PM Mossadegh’s overthrow and how it continues to reverberate in Iranian politics here).
After searching in vain for Bahman at the crowded square, Roya is forced to flee to safety after soldiers murder someone in front of her. Unable to return to the Stationery Shop, which has been burnt down in the protests, Roya returns home and tries to contact Bahman via telephone and through his friends to no avail: “each one said something different”. But after receiving devasting news about Bahman, Roya decides to follow her father’s advice and move to America with Zari to further pursue her studies. The remainder of the novel follows Roya’s life after she moves to the U.S. including how she met Walter and the life they built together in Boston. The Stationery Shop ends where it began, with Roya meeting Bahman 60 years after they were supposed to meet each other at Sepah Square and finally learning about what happened that day and in the years since: “She would not have understood, then, that time is not linear but circular.”
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Stationery Shop (I would like to thank Amazon’s algorithm/A.I. for recommending this gem of a book to me!). Kamali is a very strong writer, who is able to vividly describe Iran’s complex political situation while still providing a powerful character-driven story that combines a few of my favorite things, politics (I have a Ph.D. in political science after all), first love, and the effect of history (both political and personal) on people’s lives. I loved how Kamali juxtaposed PM Mossadegh’s overthrow and the end of Iran’s democracy with Roya’s heartbreak and the end of the young couple’s romance. Kamali skillfully interweaves both stories, causing them to intersect on the same day - August 19, 1953, without making a tumultuous time in Iran’s history overshadow the hurt and pain of a lost first love and vice versa. Kamali’s ability to keep these two events separate yet deeply interconnected events speaks to her excellent story telling skills.
Another thing I loved about The Stationery Shop was Kamali’s use of parallels, for instance, she contrasts Roya and Walter’s slow and steady courtship to Roya’s whirlwind romance with Bahman. She also contrasts the men’s personalities; Walter is reasonable and understanding, a “Massachusetts-born pillar of stability”, whereas Bahman is unpredictable and unreliable leaving Roya alone in a city on the brink of a civil war. And, unlike her relationship with Bahman, which is characterized by dizzying highs and devastating lows, Roya’s relationship with Walter is one of unwavering love and devotion that has weathered some of life’s biggest tragedies.
Also, I liked that Kamali was able to write authentically about Roya and Zari’s experience as new immigrants to the U.S. without fetishizing the experience. Like many new immigrants, especially those from completely different cultures, Roya has to learn new social and cultural norms for instance, “no one took off shoes indoors in this country, which was baffling and slightly disgusting, but she’d adjusted” (as an ex-pat myself, I’m with Roya on this one). Kamali also educates readers on culturally important holidays like Nowruz, the Persian New Year, explaining how Nowruz is celebrated, which dishes are made etc., while also showing that despite never returning to Iran, Roya remains deeply tied to her Persian culture. In fact, one of the most poignant moments in the book takes place during Nowruz, when Roya’s acerbic sister-in-law Patricia celebrates the Persian New Year with Roya, knowing that Roya would be alone since Walter was working late.
One critique I have of The Stationery Shop is its ending. Book reviewer Chloe Walker states that Kamali over-explains the ending by spending too much time explicating Bahman’s mysterious last letter to Roya. Although I love tidy endings, I wish Kamali had not used all of the epilogue explaining Bahman’s last letter in detail including how Mr. Fakhri came into its possession. Instead, I wished she had focused on how Roya’s last meeting with Bahman affected the remainder of Roya’s life and/or her relationship with Walter.
Readers who enjoy novels about thwarted love will enjoy The Stationary Shop. The novel reminded me of the movie The Notebook, which is about a passionate romance between a young couple from different socio-economic backgrounds, who break up due to the machinations of one of their mothers, and "reunites" in a nursing home several decades later, albeit under very different circumstances from Roya and Bahman. I think those who love The Notebook will also love The Stationery Shop.
I give The Stationery Shop 4 out of 5 stars because it is a well-written (PG-rated) romance about the loss of young love, the quiet devotion of married love and the frustrated love of a country that never became what it could have been. I took a star from my rating due to what I think was the weakness of the ending and also because I didn’t feel as if I got to know Roya as well as I wanted to. But overall, I think this is a unforgettable book that transports the reader to 1953 Iran and tells the story of a woman who was fortunate to have had not one, but two great loves in her life.