A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza has been the belle of the ball lately, adorned in a gilded gold and violet cover and making the rounds with Sarah Jessica Parker in a full-out promotional blitz, complete with stylish matching totes. Parker chose the book for her inaugural release for SJP for Hogarth, a sub-imprint of Penguin Random House, and she’s been hawking the book all over instagram, various large bookstores and the morning news.
Mirza is a first-time author, and the book has been largely well-received all around, with absolutely fawning reviews across Amazon and major publications.
NPR‘s Michael Schuab describes it as a “miracle.” The Washington Posts‘s Ron Charles reviewed it, too (obnoxiously entitled “Sarah Jessica Parker thinks she knows what you should read. She’s right.“), and describes how “awed” he was and what a “privilege” it was to “dwell among its characters” — at this point, my bullshit detector started going off like crazy.
I decided right then that it was going on my to-read-immediately list; perhaps a review from someone free from the echo chamber and with less of a vested interest in sucking up to a celebrity-endorsed publishing imprint that’s courting positive press would be a helpful addition to the review landscape. I ordered it off Amazon, no freebies attached and no celebrity events involved, and started reading.
A Place for Us opens with return of the prodigal son, Amar, to attend the wedding of his older sister. It’s an uncomfortable family reunion. From there, the book provides revealing glimpses into this Indian-American Muslim family living in the Bay Area. The book achronologically traces their paths with the parents’ arranged marriage and immigrating to America, to the childhoods of the three children, up until the present.
Amar, impetuous but kind, is the youngest of the children as well as the only boy. He’s also the black sheep of the family, and it’s his relationship with his family and his struggle to find his place within it that gets the most thorough treatment.
The first half of the book liberally jumps forwards and backwards in time, from narrator to narrator, often shedding new light on previously described scenes. While a few strategic jumps could have easily worked well, very quickly the over-eager time jumping every few pages became a problem for me.
Often after a time shift, my reading became unmoored; I was no longer invested in the story but merely trying to discern what time-frame the book was now operating in, dampening any emotional impact. Is this a small child asking a question or a full grown adult? Has X event happened yet? Is this a continuation of the previous section or a time jump? Instead of reading a book, it was 200 pages of “Where’s Waldo” in a search for clues about the character’s ages.
While some people may not mind just getting the “gist” of things and moving on, each part that I couldn’t place into its exact context grated at me (eventually I just wrote out the timeline, see below!). It’s such a shame because the jumbled delivery at the beginning seems so like such a wasted opportunity. For a book that trades on emotional resonance, I’m just not convinced it’s a narrative device that really makes sense here.
Thankfully, as the story’s narrative inches closer to present day, it tones down the time-shifting and proves to be a touching, thoughtful and tender story.
Once the plot evens out, A Place for Us becomes surprisingly coherent and purposeful. Despite a beginning that somehow manages to be both frenetic and dragging at the same time, the second half is collected and thoughtful. The writing is competent and, fleetingly, insightful, though still a bit long-winded. While a few parts border upon being perhaps a tad trite or overindulgent, taken as a whole it’s a fairly minor complaint.
I appreciated how understated the drama is, lending it credulity and realism. The actual events of the novel are unremarkable, highlighting how the events of the novel are instead dependent on very intentionally crafted and nuanced plot elements. The novel’s shifting narration is effective. Peering into events from different perspectives is capably executed.
Themes and Topics
As Amar struggles to find his place in the family, the novel explores how we show love or let each other down, and the things and words that get lost or remain unsaid. Each of the characters also contends with how their traditions and customs conflict with modern realities in various ways. The book touches upon the topic of being Muslim in a post-9/11 world, though with a light hand.
Sadly, the person Amar trusts the least ends up being the one who believed in him the most. And while tradition or customs may stir up tensions in this book, the things that really tear this family apart are basic and universal. Even among family members there is often pride, fear, insecurity and jealousy.
A Place for Us is not an effortless read, but it is an empathetic and ultimately rewarding story about an immigrant family. Their struggles and flaws, small but important betrayals, the Indian-American Muslim experience, and the tensions of tradition and culture clashing with modern life all play a part in this heartrending and bittersweet story. The shifting narration succeeds at least as much as the shifting timeline fails, and the portrayal of the family is sympathetic and capably written.
This book takes a little bit of time and patience to get through due to its sheer length, pacing, and structure, but it is not a wasted effort. I found the story very intelligently crafted and emotionally resonant — though sadly, no, not an awe-inducing miracle. (As an aside, I think that Washington Post review would be more properly titled, “Sarah Jessica Parker thinks celebrity appearances and free goodies are enough to garner over-hyped positive reviews. She’s right.“)
Considering this is one of the few depictions of a Indian-American or Muslim-American family in popular fiction, I’m glad it’s out there and being read.
Did you read this book or are you thinking about it? What’d you think of the story and structure?