At first glance, this memoir-travelogue is a sensitive tale of a love affair that spans two cultures and ignores an age discrepancy. Ann Marlowe has long nurtured an interest in Afghanistan, is leaving her lair, New York's East Village, for four weeks to teach English in a school in Afghanistan. Then she meets Amir. Ten-years younger, he fled Pakistan in 1982, graduated from Princeton and currently works in New York. Although he is an acquired taste, Amir becomes more appealing through their conversations. In his defense, Amir clearly states his position on marriage and his eventual return to his country of origin. Contrary to her friends' advice, Ann keeps her own counsel, savoring the intimate moments with Amir, ignoring the distance he enforces when they are in public.
The book's tempo shifts abruptly with Marlowe's change of scene to Mazar-i-Sharif, her experiences in the Middle East rife with personal reactions to people and place: "I did not feel they were poor because they did not feel they were poor. It's like the morning of the world." She is moved by her host's commitment to family and the land. Marlowe's observations while traveling in Mazar-i-Sharif read like a travelogue, impressions of the country, people, and customs compared to America; the chapters on Amir are more intimate, an examination of the male-female condition, the love affair already doomed, in spite of the ease with which "love" seeps into the relationship.
But as Amir grows more distant and unavailable, Ann reacts with stubborn disbelief, clinging to her memories of their nights together. To escape her heartbreak, Marlowe visits Iraq after the beginning of the war, in travelogue mode again, sharing her views of that country and her approval of the war, including an interview with the infamous Ahmed Chalabi (whom she finds charming). She opines, "Life in post-war Baghdad isn't easy, even for the privileged." Returning to her familiar haunts in New York, nothing has changed, Amir still unavailable, unwilling even to be friends. At this point the author reveals that this great love affair has actually consisted of only five nights of intense physical interaction, a tiny part of the passing months of the memoir. Suddenly I feel gullible, for I have accepted Marlowe at her word, assuming that Amir is equally involved in the relationship, a detail she fails to mention until the end of the book.
Clearly, Marlowe has chosen a doomed affair, such drama grist for the writer's mill; equally suspect are her other observations of the world at large, the true nature of the people she claims such empathy with, her unquestioning acceptance of the Iraq war, a general approval of Saddam's removal, a ready admission she doesn't believe there are WMD's (this is an East Village intellectual?). The author breaks down each topic into cultural specifics, analyzing differences, cousin-marriage (a favorite topic), religion, male-female relationships, war, friends, food, everything categorized, desensitized. The romance, the travel, the ready opinions all assume a facile veneer, a justification for self-indulgence and a fear of personal vulnerability that leaves me confused and doubting her veracity. Oh, and by the way, an effusive back cover blurb is written by author James Frey. Luan Gaines/ 2006.