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?
Extras: Discussion Questions
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?