December Discussion #HWRbooks: The Stationery Shop

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Roya’s mother had always said that our fate is written on our foreheads when we’re born. It can’t be seen, can’t be read, but it’s there in invisible ink all right, and life follows that fate. No matter what.” (pg 4)

Have you ever wondered what life would have been like had one tiny little thing played out differently? Would if you wouldn’t have made the train that day where you ended up meeting your future spouse? Or would if you wouldn’t have gone on that blind date where you totally hit it off with that special person? Or would if your country wouldn’t have experienced a coup the day you were supposed to meet your beloved at the town square?

The Stationery Shop is a book that inadvertently explores that idea. Roya is supposed to meet her boyfriend, Bahman, in the town square at a particular time, but on that same day, there is a staged coup to overthrow the Iranian leader. They never end up meeting and, as a result, both of their lives drastically change direction.

Roya moves to the United States with her sister to pursue an education. Bahman ends up marrying a woman of his mother’s choosing. Through a mutual friend, Roya and Bahman keep track of each other’s lives. When that friend dies, their “connection” to each other is lost. Life goes on (as it does) until Roya encounters a man that strangely reminds her of her long lost love. Will she finally find out what happened that day, sixty years ago, that changed the direction of her life forever?

“We do not always get what we want, Roya Khanom. Things do not always work out the way we planned. Those who are young tend to think that life’s tragedies and miseries and its bullets will somehow miss them. That they can buoy themselves with naīve hope and energy. They think, wrongly, that shomehow youth or desire or even love can outmatch the hand of fate. The truth is, my young lady, that fate has written the script for your destiny on your forehead from the very beginning. We can’t see it. But it’s there. And the young, who love so passionately, have no idea how ugly this world is. This world is without compassion.” (pg 127)

What worked for me:

  • I loved the theme of fate woven throughout the entire story. I’m very much intrigued by the whole “sliding doors” concept (remember that movie?!?!)…I’m always wondering, “what if this had happened instead, how would that have affected this…”
  • The characters! I loved them all in their own way (well, except Mrs. Aslan. I don’t see any redeeming qualities in her.)
    • Roya and her independance and strength to pick herself back up after all her heartbreak.
    • Bahman for his activism and for standing up so strongly for his beliefs. And for continuing to love Roya through the years in a way that inspired him to create a bookshop reminiscent of where they met.
    • Zari for her foresight and endless amounts of warnings.
    • Walter for his patience, support, and acceptance of Roya and her past
    • Fakhri for his bookshop and his small hand in Roya and Bahman’s budding romance.
    • Roya’s parents for their modern thinking – for accepting their two daughters (in a society that values a son more than a daughter) and for wanting them to be educated and independent!
    • Jahangir and his dedication to his friendship with Roya and Bahman.
  • The political information throughout the novel. I went down a rabbit hole on Google to read a little more about the coup mentioned in the book and I was fascinated by what I learned!
  • Learning even just a little bit about Iran and its complicated history. I would love to learn more! A glimpse into the Iranian culture was fascinating!

What didn’t work for me:

  • Simplistic in its delivery…from the overall story to the language and syntax used. It just felt a little shallow to me, and maybe I noticed it more because it had such potential to have a lot more depth.
  • For me, the pacing fell apart towards the end. It took awhile for the story to build up and then it speeds through the last 25% of the book. I missed the depth the first half of the book possessed and wish it would have carried through to the end.
  • Mrs. Aslan – I understand that she had a mental illness and that was the driving force behind her dispicable character, but for me, she wasn’t convincing. Instead of feeling that sympathy, I questioned her diagnosis of mental illness and wondered if she really just suffered from narcissistic and manipulative behavior.

Overall, this was a great book and I would recommend it to others. The few things I didn’t like about it weren’t deal breakers. Thoughout the story, I had hope for Roya and Bahman ending up together, but even when they didn’t, it was satisfying to know that they both had happy and fulfilling lives. The story came full circle by the end and it was the perfect feel good story admist the craziness of the holiday season!

Discussion time:

Below, you’ll find some discussion questions. Please reply and discuss at your leisure. Beware…there could be spoilers!

  1. Fate is a huge theme throughout the book. What are your thoughts on fate and how it related to Roya’s life? Did it seem like her life was mostly guided by fate, by her own personal decisions, or by entirely other influences?
  2. Mrs. Aslan had a huge influence on Roya and Bahman’s relationship. Do you respect Bahman for standing by his mother, or do you think he should have stopped letting her manipulate him and lived his own life?
  3. How do you feel about Fakhri’s role in breaking up Roya and Bahman? Do you think he owed Mrs. Aslan or do you think he should have stayed out of it?
  4. Going back to the idea of fate…do you believe in fate? Do you think there’s only one path written for us or multiple options that will be just as good? Do you think Roya would have had a better life with Bahman?
  5. What frustrated you about the book, the characters, or the choices made? How would you have changed it? What would you have liked to see happen?
  6. What are your overall thoughts on the book? What would you rate it? Would you recommend it to a friend?

Stay tuned for the January selection which I’ll be announcing on January 2, 2020! I hope you’ll join me for the buddy read and the discussion to follow!

October’s Deeper Dive: Cantoras

Cantoras Book Cover

I listened to the Reading Women Podcast where the hosts interviewed the author of Cantoras (Knopf, available now), Carolina de Robertis. I was immediately struck by her calm and gentle spirit. In addition to the high praise it gained from fellow bookstagrammers I trust, Melissa and Lupita, I knew I wanted to read this book as soon as possible.

(Click the link to hear the interview! Reading Women Podcast Interview with Carolina de Robertis)

Cantoras is about five queer Latina women who are oppressed under the rule of an unforgiving regime where homosexuality is punishable. Somehow they find one another and then, amazingly, they discover a shack which they purchase and turn into their own private getaway. Told over forty years, the friendships that started from this beach shack grow, and in turn, it becomes the home they’ve each been searching for their whole lives – a place free from judgment and restrictions, where they can give and receive unconditional love.

The characters are rich and deep and they truly carry the story. Malena stole my heart, but I was equally invested in the other four main characters (Flaca, Romina, Anita “La Venus”, and Paz), and one incredible secondary character, El Lobo. They created a bond with each other that went much further than friendship – it was their “chosen family”.

“She’d thought they might get relief from the city, perhaps make friends, but she hadn’t known they could come to feel like something more than friends, something larger, a kind of alternative family stitched together by the very fact that they’d been torn from the fabric of the accepted world.

This concept of one’s “chosen family” struck me. While I believe its a genuine thing in any group where acceptance and love are hard to find, I also realized that this is a universal desire – the need to be surrounded by people that uplift and support you, that have your genuine interests at heart, and that love you regardless of who you are or what you do. Don’t we all seek out people we can live our truth with? Sometimes family members feel forced upon us (whether through familial or societal expectations), and sometimes we’re forced to be around people we wouldn’t choose, and that’s where the beauty of this “chosen family” concept comes in. To seek out – on purpose – people that are good for our soul. The women in this book demonstrate this level of love, friendship, commitment, and belonging so beautifully.

“They’d been forming a kind of family, woven from castoffs, like a quilt made from strips of leftover fabric no one wanted. They wanted each other. They had to stay woven They could not fray.”

Over and over again, I was struck by de Robertis’ beautiful writing. Lyrical and metaphorical, she transported me to another place and time. I was impressed with her ability to write a deeper meaning than what was presented on the page. For example, when de Robertis first describes this  uninhibited beach town, she says:

“…there was no basement anywhere on this damn cape, there was barely a tree to hide behind, everything had a raw quality to it, bared to the open wind.”

While that is a physical description of this place, it also describes the collective mission of these five women – to figure out how to expose themselves and how to live in their truths, to accept who they are, and to embrace it fully. This shack will be the place they learn to do all of those things.

De Robertis wrote a story that touched my heart. Full of themes like home and belonging, overcoming past traumas and injustices, and finding your “chosen family” so you can live life more fully, this story will remain with me for a very long time. There is also a lot of interesting information regarding Uruguay and their political history during the forty-year span this novel covers.

Even though there were a few things I didn’t love – it started to drag just a little bit in the middle, and some of the character’s decisions extremely frustrated me – overall, I would highly recommend this book.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I read to gain compassion and understanding, and to gain insight into lives that I don’t have any knowledge about through personal experience. I want to change myself and my thinking and learn about different parts of the world. This book hits all of those marks and easily makes it one of the best books of the year!

“In telling stories that are largely absent from formal histories or from the great noise of mainstream culture, I never forget that there are thousands if not millions of people whose names we may never learn, whose names are lost in time, who made our contemporary lives possible through acts of extraordinary courage. Their stories have all too often gone unrecorded, but I am here today, and able to speak, because of them. And, finally, to anyone reading this who’s struggled through a chrysalis to become her or his or their authentic self: I see you, I thank you, I’m glad you’re here, this book is yours as well.”

– Carolina de Robertis, from the Acknowledgments page.