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Persian Girls – a memoir

This book was read as part of the MotherTalk Book Club and Salon, fostering great discussions with readers
The front cover of Persian Girls: A Memoir by Nahib Rachlin has a quote from a Boston Globe reviewer saying that the “memoir reads like a novel”, which I felt was very accurate. Nahib has provided us with a peek into her world, spanning over fifty years, and immersing us in the culture of Iran and her family.
Nahib pulls us quickly into her world, showing us her split childhood – life with her adopted mother for her first 9 years, and then life with her birth family. Nahib’s birth mother, Mohtaram, was very fertile, she agreed to give a child to her sister, Maryam. It was when Nahib turned 9 that she was considered “of age”, able to legally marry, and that is when her father came to get her. When her father took her from her adopted mother, Nahib lost an attentive mother, she gained a sister and confidante.

Nahib’s relationship with her older sister Pari is incredibly moving. Both girls loved American movies and the idea of new freedoms for women. I look at my daughters, and hope for them to continue their close relationship – one like what Nahib and Pari had. There were many times as I was reading Persian Girls that I wished I was reading a novel, and that the author could guarantee me a happy ending for everyone involved. The relationship between Nahib and Pari was so intense, and yet fraught with obstacles. Their middle sister, Manijeh, was their mother’s favorite, and the obvious favoritism made for a lot of rivalry between them. As time passes, and physical distances between them increase, the bonds between them change and strengthen.

The Iranian Government and its changing laws cast a shadow over the lives of Nahib and her family. Every choice they make has to take the laws and social mores into account. Nahib’s brothers go to college in the US, which is seen as a very modern thing to do. However, her two older sisters are married traditionally – in arranged marriages. While all families worry about appearances, in Nahib’s father seemed to worry even more than usual. His job as a lawyer seemed tied to how his family is perceived, and he must balance the traditional and the modern.

Parts of Persian Girls feel like a mystery, and one that cannot be solved. Without an omniscient narrator, we only know what Nahib has experienced or discovered. I wish I could see into the heads of many of the characters, but there is an intimate feeling reading one person’s memories, one person’s truth.

Nahib states at one point in Persian Girls that she feels like she doesn’t belong in either culture. I know that feeling is common among many ex-patriots, but I have to wonder if the problems in US-Iranian relationships made her transition more difficult. I found myself identifying so much with Nahid, finding many universal truths within her words, no matter your background.

I highly recommend Persian Girls to anyone who enjoys memoirs and non-fiction, as well as to anyone who enjoys women’s fiction or literary fiction – it really is a memoir that reads like a novel. It pulls you in, with vivid imagery of Nahid Rachlin’s world. Watch out, though, once you start it you won’t be able to put it down easily! I look forward to reading Nahid Rachlin’s other books.

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