August 27, 2015

Book Review: The Saturday Night School of Beauty by Marsha Mehran

Pub date: September 8, 2015

232 pages

Source: Netgalley

A moving tale of exile, friendship, and love from the bestselling author of Pomegranate Soup.
In the wake of the Iranian revolution, Zadi Heirati, a single mother, flees to Buenos Aires with her young daughter. She decides to do what she knows best and opens a beauty salon, but as she meets her new neighbors and discovers their shared passion for poetry, the idea develops into much more than a job. The inhabitants of her apartment building form an eclectic community: a sick ex-prisoner and his daughter; a promising medical student; a timid hairdresser; a newlywed couple with a dark past; a young revolutionary; an eccentric pilgrim of Mecca; and at the heart of the group, Zadi, whose humble small business becomes a spiritual hub where she hosts weekly readings of Persian poetry.

Drawn together by the revolution in their homeland, these neighbors share words that inspire each to turn inward and discover beauty long buried. At once familiar and extraordinary, this story weaves disparate lives together into a tapestry of unique grace, wit, and lyricism.

Imagine coming upon Da Vinci's Mona Lisa in an unfinished state – perhaps a third of the details are sketched out, but not fully rendered with brushstrokes. Yet, you can still see without a doubt the lady's beauty, her mysterious smile, the grace of her hands. You can only visualize what the painting would look like in its finished state, but you can conclude from what was set down on canvas how breathtaking the whole would have been.

That scenario is how I can best describe The SaturdayNight School of Beauty by Marsha Mehran. It contains so many passages that excited me – beautiful, heartbreaking, profound, shocking, memorable. Often-times I would have to read some parts over again because they moved me. I love the narrative format of the book, which interweaves the background stories of Persian expatriates in Buenos Aires who come together for weekly poetry night. They recite and passionately discuss the Koran, Rumi, Hafez, and other poets, often illuminating the characters' psyches. 

"What happened to people when they began to revolt, to change from within, and to become something else.  That was why he loved poetry.  What really drew him to the words.  He understood those lines that called to him.  Revolt, the turn in a turn."

Mehran alternates from these poetry nights to exploring the haunting pasts of each character and what drove them from Iran to Argentina. These chapters are just as riveting as the poetry scenes, in that I felt immersed in Persian culture.

Mehran's writing is as lyrical as the mystical poetry her characters discuss.

However, there are some uneven sections in the book. Some characters' backgrounds and plots don't feel fully fleshed out. Sometimes, a chapter will start delving into one character only to abruptly switch to another character's narrative. This was puzzling, as it was obvious to me how gifted and skillful the writer seemed. I got my answer when I read the heartbreaking foreword by the author's father. It seems Marsha Mehran died before completing the book and her father did the best he could to get it in a publishable state.

If you liked Reading Lolita in Tehran, you must read TheSaturday Night School of Beauty.

Marsha Mehran (1977-2014) was born in Tehran, Iran, left during the Revolution, at age 2, with her family. She then lived in such diverse places as Buenos Aires, The United States, Australia and Ireland. Marsha's talent and wit was evident from an early age: she became fluent in speaking Farsi, Spanish and English at age 6; she was identified as a gifted child at age 8 in The USA; and she excelled at learning to play the piano, nurturing her musical talent at the Elder Conservatory of Music in Adelaide. Her first book, Pomegranate Soup, published in 2005, was translated into 15 languages and published in more than 20 countries. The continuation, Rosewater and Soda Bread, was a hit sequel in Marsha's vision for a series of seven books. The third title, Pistachio Rain, was scheduled for publication in 2014 but disrupted by her demise in April that year. Her stand-alone book has been published in Australia and New Zealand, by Harper Collins, as The Margaret Thatcher School of Beauty and by Amazon Crossing as The Saturday Night School of Beauty. Marsha Mehran passed away, lonely, in Ireland in her Lecanvey cottage in 2014 at the age of 36. She leaves behind a literary legacy that will continue to thrive in her legion of fans across the globe.

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