Marjan Kamali’s The Stationary Shop is not a perfect book, but it is one of the most perfectly tragic books I’ve ever read. By the end, I was blinking hard to stop myself from crying at this love story gone awry. This novel spans decades and thousands of miles, from 1953 in Tehran when the protagonists meet to the 1990s in the United States when they finally meet again at last. What we don’t know—and what is revealed slowly over the course of the book—is what happened to interrupt their all-consuming passion for each other.
Roya, when we meet her, has a safe, comfortable life in Massachusetts sometime in the 1990s. She lives with her kind, loving husband and, although she cares for him deeply, we can tell that this is not the life she once hoped for. She might have gone on with her secret sorrow if a chance encounter hadn’t led to an opportunity to meet with Bahman. Bahman was (still is, one could argue) the great love of her life. The opening chapter ends with Roya asking Bahman why he never met her in a Tehran square like he was supposed to, all those years ago. If they had been able to meet, both of their lives would have been completely different.
We are then whisked away to 1953, as growing internal and external pressures threaten to topple the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh. In spite of the turmoil, Roya and Bahman have bright futures. Roya’s father strongly supports her education. Bahman is described as a boy who will change the world. They meet by chance at a stationary store. Roya is there to read poetry. Bahman is there to pick up prohibited political material. It’s not exactly love at first sight, but it is love at first poetry quotation. The two fall deeply in love. Bahman proposes; Roya accepts. The only problem is Bahman’s very, very troubled mother. Mrs. Aslan wants her son to marry a more “suitable” woman, one she has picked out from a higher social class. As Roya learns more about Bahman’s family, she sees how much Mrs. Aslan torments and manipulates her husband and son to get what she wants. She is one of the most unhappy characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. She is also so toxic that I wanted to yell at Bahman and Roya to run away from her.
The two are separated during a coup to depose Mosaddegh. I won’t say more about that because a lot of the plot depends on how the two are pulled apart and how Roya attempts to find a life for herself after her great disappointment. Even though Mrs. Aslan is a malevolent force, Bahman speaks for her. He tells us that, in that time and place, mental illness was deeply stigmatized. If he and his father don’t care for her, what would become of her? His mother is clearly ill and there’s no hope of getting treatment for her. No matter how much she hurts him, Bahman always tries to be compassionate.
In other hands, The Stationary Store would have been a completely different store. I daresay an American author would have found a way to give Roya and Bahman a happy ending, because that’s how we are. Instead, Kamali gives us a very human, genuinely tragic story that forces us to consider questions about sacrifice, forgiveness, and frustrated hopes. There is one part of the book that I found jarring because it was an unnecessary diversion. (I don’t know why we needed a chapter from the perspective of the nurse who bonds with Bahman near the end of the book.) Other than that single flaw, I was moved and stunned by this book. It truly was one of the best tragedies I’ve read in a long time. Readers who feel the need for a cathartic cry should definitely pick up The Stationary Store.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend for readers who are struggling to understand someone struggling with an untreated personality disorder.