One of the members of my book club had the rest of the club choose between this book and The Fault in Our Stars as our July book, and although at the time I would much rather have re-read TFiOS (because AWESOME) than read another Hosseini novel, I am very glad that I was forced to read this instead, because AWESOME.
Beware the rest of this post, because while I think that you can’t really spoil a novel like this, I personally really enjoyed knowing nothing at all about this book before diving in, so if you are that kind of reader just run away, obtain this book, and read the heck out of it.
The book starts off as a person telling some other people a sort of fairy tale story about a fellow who loses his favorite son to a tricky demon/god thing. The father decides, naturally, that he must go get his son back, so he braves all the things and makes his way to the demon/god’s home for wayward children, which turns out to be this great and awesome place and the father is now forced to choose between taking his son home to a decidedly not-great and not-awesome place, or leaving his son with the demon/god and losing all memory of said son’s existence. Aaaugh, that is a terrible choice.
So then in the next chapter it turns out that the storyteller was a father with two children whose own stories may possibly closely match the story in the first chapter, and it’s terrible watching this story play out in “real” life (oh, frame stories!) but also so very interesting.
Which is basically how the rest of the book plays out. The chapters each feature a different character and tell his or her story, or at least the parts that are interesting and relate to the other characters and chapters. Most of the stories involve some terrible thing that happens and focus on how the protagonist deals or refuses to deal with it, and although the results are invariably depressing on some level they are also kind of amazingly relatable. I came away from so many of the stories thinking, yes, that is a true thing that is true but I had never really thought of it in that way and now I feel rather enlightened, but also depressed.
I think my favorite of the chapters is the fifth one, in which two cousins return to their family home in Afghanistan in an attempt to reclaim the family lands abandoned many years previous. The one cousin is this outgoing and ostentatious dude, totally excited by the prospect of being back in the homeland and doing homeland-y type things and being a sort of savior to his people or whatever. The other is totally grossed out by his cousin but finds himself drawn to a little girl who obviously needs medical help, help that he as a doctor could probably totally provide if he just pulled the right strings, and while he’s in Afghanistan he makes all these grand plans but when he gets back to America (SPOILERS!) those plans take a backseat to, like, being a fairly well-off doctor who doesn’t have to worry himself about random children on another continent. I think everyone can relate to getting really excited about a thing or a cause and then having that excitement die off as regular life intrudes and says, hey, that couch over there looks really comfy, you should go have a nap on it; but of course when it’s a person and not a thing it’s so much worse, and our protagonist cousin knows this. This chapter is a heart-stabber, and I love it.
As with any story collection, which is more or less what this is, there are some stories that are less awesome than, say, my favorite one. But I am hard-pressed to think of any that were bad or disappointing, and if there are any you can probably skip them without losing too much of the thread of the novel. Though considering how eager I was to keep reading this book, even in the midst of a disappointingly short vacation, I don’t think there’s much worry about that.
I was really not expecting, when I started this book, to come here to the blog and sing its praises, or to have a book club meeting about it where we just all said, “Oh, this part is so good! And this part! And this other part! And all the parts!” But it is totally deserving of all those exclamation marks, and more, and if you have a nice long plane adventure ahead of you this will definitely make it seem a lot shorter (she says, from experience).
Recommendation: For those who love short stories that fit together to make a whole novel, those who want to learn more about Afghanistan, and those who don’t mind being incredibly depressed about the whole thing.