One day a plane brings two baby Korean girls to Baltimore, to be adopted by two families, Brad and Bitsy Donaldsons and the Iranian-Americans Sami and Ziba Yazdan. The two families become friends and meet on a regular basis, especially on the anniversary of the babies' arrival, when the families take it in turn to host each other. The Donaldsons think of themselves as progressive Americans who want to respect their little girl's Korean ancestry, keep her Korean name of Jin-Ho and dress her in Korean-style clothes, and they think it is not quite right that the Yazdans should have given their little girl an English name, Susan. They regard the Yazdans as Iranians. The women in the Yazdan family, timid Ziba and her characterful mother-in-law Maryam, have certainly kept some Iranian ways of thinking, but find it tiresome that the Donaldsons constantly allude to or enquire about their Iranian traditions. As for Sami, he was born in the United States; he has a thoroughly American life-style, but is also quite capable of mocking Americans ways from an outsider's point of view. So there is always a little tension on the Yazdan side whenever the two families meet.
The Donaldsons also adopt a second little baby girl, this time from China, and there is a drawn-out account of how Bitsy is trying to wean her from her pacifiers. I don't think the novel really needed Xiu-Mei and it would have been more organic without her. I also expected that the two little Korean girls might have some identity problems; but at the end of the book they are only about six or seven years old, too young perhaps to have any such problems (except that Jin-Ho now calls herself Jo). Instead, the novel centres increasingly on Bitsy's widowed father Dave (a touching portrait) and on Maryam, the most subtly drawn character in the book. The Donaldsons, though tactless (especially Bitsy) are so well-meaning, so warm and so sociable that Ziba and Sami feel increasingly more comfortable in their world; but Maryam always feels more of an outsider, resists being drawn in, and puzzles the Donaldsons.
As always, it is a delight to read a book by Anne Tyler: she is humorous, compassionate, has an observant eye for the details of daily life and an acute ear for dialogue. She portrays the Donaldson type of American to perfection; and one suspects that her insight into Iranian-Americans must come from personal knowledge.