Although I know many people thought this the best book they had read all year, I found it, in a word, boring. My only motivation for continuing to slog through it was that it was my book club’s selection for the month, although in the end I had to miss that particular meeting.
As most people know by now, this is the story of two women in Afghanistan, both of whom we meet as children. Mariam, the product of an affair between a maid and the married master of the house, lives with her mother in Herat and is occasionally visited by her father. After her mother's death, Mariam is married off to Rasheed, a man 30 years her senior who lives in Kabul. Rasheed does not allow her to leave the house unless she is with him and covered by the burqa. When she fails to produce a son, Rasheed becomes even more abusive.
Laila, who lives on the same street as Mariam and Rasheed, is orphaned in her teens when her parents are killed by a bomb. Pregnant and told that her boyfriend has been killed, Laila sees no choice but to accept Rasheed's invitation to become his wife, joining Mariam in the household. After some initial enmity the two women become friends, and Rasheed's abuse extends to Laila as well. I don’t think I’ve given anything away; you can see all of these plot developments coming when the girls are first introduced.
Two things made this story so boring. One is the simplicity of the language. Some books can hold my attention with the sheer beauty of their prose, but this isn't one of them. I admire Hosseini's courage for writing in English, which is not his first language, but the simple sentences and preponderance of one-syllable words hardly constitute a prose style likely to capture the interest of an adult reader. While appropriate for the sections of the book about the women's childhoods, the use of such language to describe their lives as adults further infantilises them. Perhaps this is Hosseini's intent.
The second and more important factor is that the characters are one-dimensional. Abused Woman #1 and Abused Woman #2 passively suffer their fate. I respect that Hosseini is trying to challenge himself by writing about women, but even the male characters—Rasheed, Mariam's father, Laila's boyfriend—have no depth. None of the characters grows or changes in the course of the story. Well, Mariam does eventually befriend Laila and try to protect her, but that does not make Mariam any different from the girl she had been before her marriage. Without character development, the story becomes just one instance of abuse after another. Perhaps if the characters had been presented in more depth, I might have cared about them and cared about their fate. But I didn't.
Michael Chabon in his fascinating collection of essays, Maps and Legends, talks about the dangers involved in creating characters. To make them live, you must confront your fears, reveal deeply hidden secrets, tell the truth. Here, Hosseini views his characters from a distance, moving them around like chesspieces on a board, never truly getting inside their heads.
Of some interest are the details of daily life in Herat and Kabul. However, since the two women spend most of their time imprisoned in the house, such details are few and far between. I'm at a loss to understand why so many people liked this book so much. Maybe if I had known nothing about spousal abuse or the lives of women in fundamentalist societies, I would have found the book more interesting.
On the other hand, perhaps I am expecting too much, wanting literary substance in a popular novel. But the best book they'd read all year? Oh well. This is not the first time that high expectations have ruined a novel for me.