By Fatima Farheen Mirza, A powerful and well-crafted, but uneven family saga
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 Plot Summary
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. The varying narrators works well. The time jumps, less so. While a few strategic jumps could have easily been effective, very quickly the over-eager time jumping every few pages started to get old.
After a time shift, 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 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 the Detailed Plot Summary, below). Mostly, the jumbled delivery at the beginning just seemed a little unnecessary. For a book that trades on emotional resonance, I’m just not convinced it’s a narrative device that really makes sense here. It overshadowed what would otherwise be a touching, thought-provoking and nuanced story. I’m also guessing a fair amount of people will end up giving up on the book due to the confusion.
As the story’s narrative inches closer to present day, it tones down the time-shifting. 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, once the plotline steadies itself, a much more collected and thoughtful story takes shape.
This is a book that covers a lot of ground from sibling dynamics to parenting choices and the impact of race and religion. I appreciated how understated but powerful the drama is, lending it credulity and realism, and the shifting narration works well here.
The actual events of the novel are surprising unremarkable from an objective point of view, yet somehow feel like a punch in gut in the context of the book. In A Place For Us, fairly everyday things, the small betrayals and disappointments, will leave you feeling emotionally gutted.
The impact of the novel is dependent on very intentionally crafted and nuanced plot elements. Despite my initial frustration with the book, by the end, I was fully invested in this story with a pile of tissues nearby.
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.
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 yet powerful.
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. I also think this would make a fantastic book club choice. There’s a ton to talk about in terms of the themes, literary devices, and the varying points of view and symbolism and even religion.
Did you read this book or are you thinking about it? What’d you think of the story and structure?
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
ChildhoodWhen Amar is a toddler (3), the kids suggest going on a picnic. Rafiq agrees, saying he might know "a place for us." It's a beautiful day. Layla and Amar go off by themselves. Amar remembers this fondly because he asked his mother, Layla, to go and wade in a stream with him and even though she's reluctant to get wet, she does it anyway. Layla gets pregnant soon after, but miscarries. The baby would have been named Jaffer. The kids stay with Seema (Ali) Auntie for three days while Layla is recovering. The Ali's are a wealthier family with two kids who are similar in age (Abbas Ali and Amira Ali). A while later, when Hadia is about 8, she has to decide whether to wear a hijab, which is a decision she takes seriously, and ultimately she decides to do so. Layla has a conversation with the kids around this time about the nature of sin. She describes it as a black mark on your heart that keeps growing as you keep sinning. In school, Amar has been periodically pretending to be sick and going to the nurse's office. He then asks for Hadia to come comfort him. (He's 6, Hadia's about 10.) It's something he does when he doesn't want to be in class. Hadia complies, and she also notes that lately Amar has been acting up whenever their father gets annoyed with his sisters (presumably, to redirect his anger at him instead). Layla starts getting concerned about Amar and his behavior around this time. A few years later, Amar is doing a little better and has recently befriended a boy named Mark. He has a spelling test coming up, and he wants new red shoes. Rafiq says that he will buy him the shoes if he does well on his spelling test. Hadia helps Amar to study. After the test, he's confident, but Hadia finds out he wrote some answers on the sole of his shoe. She promises not to tell. He does well on the test. Hadia is feeling jealous that her parents are so pleased with Amar. She wants makeup to impress Abbas (who she is beginning to develop a crush on), but her parents say no dismissively. She ends up telling her father about Amar cheating, and Amar does not get the shoes. Amar ends up being held back that year and has to re-do 3rd grade. A while later, when Amar is around ten, the family is fasting for Ramadan. Amar is young so he doesn't need to do it, but he wants to. They will need to wake up early to eat before fasting. The family doesn't wake him though. He ends up waking up a little late and joins them anyway.
TeenagersAs teenagers, Abbas (about 18-ish) starts to befriend Amar (14-ish), saying he will be his protege. Hadia gets accepted into a joint undergrad/grad medical school program. Her father gives her his father's watch, his prized possession which had -- until now -- been passed down from son to son. Hadia takes her siblings to get ice cream and they go into a vintage shop. Amar sees a box with a lock that he desperately wants. Hadia later suggests to her mother to buy it for him for his birthday. Layla goes to India for a visit after her father has a heart attack, and in the interim 9/11 happens. Amar gets into a fight at school three days later when two boys (one of which is Mark who used to be his friends) say racist things to him. Layla gives Amar the box. Hadia helps him set the lock, so she knows the combination. Soon, there's a party a week before Hadia is leaving for school. At the party, she and Abbas make mango lassi. Later, when Amira is around 15 and Amar about 17, Amira boldy approaches Amar at a party and they begin corresponding after that. A short while later, Hadia is visiting from school so the family has a party to celebrate her continuing on to medical school. Amira and Amar are both there, and Amira gives Amar a note. Four days after, Abbas is in a car accident and dies. Rafiq (father) takes Hadia to visit the Ai family and Amar insists on going and tries to comfort Amira. About a few months later, Abbas is hanging out with a friend, Simon, and drinks for the first time. He and Amira have been e-mailing each other. He's graduating soon, and receives a nice, store bought watch from his father as a graduation gift.
AdultsTwo years after the accident, Amar and Amira are meeting up in a meadow -- the same one where his family once went on a picnic. He says it's the place where he was the happiest. They've been dating secretly for a while now. He keeps mementos of her in his locked box. Amira's parents have been approaching her with suitors. He promises to her he'll make something of himself so can deserve her, so he can be with her "the right way" -- with her parent's approval. That summer, Hadia comes home for a visit. Amar is now in his second year of community college. He brings up the idea of him becoming a doctor, but Hadia tries to dissuade him. She mentions his love of writing. Hadia checks his box which she has done from time to time and realizes that he is secretly seeing Amira. Hadia implies to Layla that Amar is hiding things from her, when Layla argues with her about not talking to her enough. Amar brings up wanting to be a doctor to Layla as well and gets a similar response. She tells him about the child she miscarried. Layla recalls Hadia's implication about Amar and ends up checking his box when it is unlocked. She finds out about Amira and tells Rafiq. Rafiq thinks that maybe it's good for him, but Layla disagrees. (Rafiq actually knew about it years before but didn't tell anyone, having witnessed an interaction between Amira and Amar). Layla visits Seema Ali and tells her what she knows about Amar and Amira. She convinces her that the only way it will end is if Amira ends things with Amar. Amar and Amira meet underneath a tunnel and she ends things with him. A few weeks later, he is with some friends and drunkenly goes to visit her at her house. She sends him away and he ends up doing drugs for the first time with his friends that night. Hadia visits home a while later and ends up talking to Amira. Amira says she is struggling and wants to know if she should fight for Amar. Hadia tells her that Amar can't be the person she needs him to be. Hadia finds pills (drugs) that Amar has. She flushes them. Things have been going missing around the home. Her watch goes missing and she confronts Amar about the pills. Baba brings out a safe to store their things at home. A while later Hadia gets a call from Baba asking her to come home because he is worried about Amar. She has just started dating Tariq. She goes home and Amar asks her for $500. Amar and Baba get into a fight when Baba confronts Amar about the drugs. Amar tells him he's not a Muslim and Baba disowns him. Amar ends up hitting their father, resulting in a broken picture frame. Amar leaves home. It is a few years (2-3) later now, and Hadia is getting married to Tariq. Her parents approve, though he is not Shia and doesn't speak Urdu. Amar shows up at the wedding and returns the watch. He has been living in L.A. and doing odd jobs. He had been doing drugs, but has gotten clean recently. Amira is now married to a dentist who she has grown to love. Amira tells him that Layla was the one who visited her mother and told her to end things. Amar confronts Layla and gets drunk. He talks to Baba, bringing up that he doesn't believe he'll make it to the "other place" (as in Heaven). Baba says they'll wait for him. Baba gives him some money and Amar leaves.
Much LaterThe family does not see Amar again after that. Huda gets married. Hadia has two kids, Abbas and Tahira. Abbas reminds them of Amar. Baba gets sick, he has a brain tumor. He has surgery. He gives Abbas red shoes for his birthday. Abbas seem to get secret phone calls from someone she assumes is Amar. Baba tries to pass a message through Abbas to Amar, asking him to come home. The book ends with Baba confident that he will see Amar again some day in Heaven and wishing he had reminded him of the mercy of God before he left.
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What does Hadia's decision to wear a hijab mean? What does that say about her? Why do you think it was such a difficult decision for her to make?
Layla describes to the kids the idea of sin being a stain on your heart, which gets bigger the more you sin. Do you agree or disagree with this idea of morality?
How do Hadia's small acts of rebellion -- dying a streak of her hair blue, etc. -- play into her personality?
Why do you think Amar wanted that box? What does that box mean to him? What does the box symbolize?
How does the parenting of the children affect the siblings' relationships? Hadia as a child feels that they love Amar more because they give them more attention in some ways -- is her jealousy justified? Should their parents have done something differently?
Why do you think Hadia's father was disappointed that she told on Amar? What should Hadia have done?
Why does Amar ask his father to shave his beard? How do you think his father should have responded?
How does Amar's relationship with Amira compare with Hadia's relationship with Abbas? Do you think Hadia feels jealous that Amar actually did something about his feelings?