on 5 January 2013
This book was first brought to my attention by a member of the Kindlers Club book club. I doubt I would have read the book had it not been selected as the December read.
The book tells the stories of a host of characters in Kabul, Afghanistan. The link amongst them all is the coffeehouse of the title. This is definitely a book focusing on the lives of women there, although there are several interesting male characters. I enjoyed reading about the different characters and wanted to see how their stories developed. I was largely satisfied by the plotlines for each of them, but not entirely so. The author intertwines the stories well but, for me, I found some plot developments too convenient and the odd character change a little too abrupt and unbelievable.
The ending will please readers who like everything resolved neatly, but it just didn't ring entirely true for me. I felt it ended leaving a sugary taste in my mouth - too sweet and schmaltzy and 'Hollywood' for my liking. The setting is Afghanistan, and while everything is not a happy ending (no spoilers here), we would surely expect some loose ends in reality.
I should stress that this didn't ruin my enjoyment of the book. I learnt a lot about Afghanistan and its culture. The writing was very atmospheric and I really felt the danger the Afghans must feel on a daily basis. What surprised me most about the book was that living in Afghanistan is not entirely the unpleasant experience you would expect. Of course it is unsafe, but there is beauty to be found in unexpected places and people there live with goals in life to change the place for the better. Some of the characters' efforts to change Afghanistan for the better were inspiring.
The book ends with snippets from the author's own life and experience, which is interesting, and some traditional Afghan recipes.
So, in summary, the book gave me a real flavour of a place and culture I had little knowledge of, and the characters I journeyed with were interesting and enjoyable. The only real let-down was the all too convenient execution of the plotlines which felt unrealistic.
on 8 December 2013
I had to read this book for my book club, otherwise I would have not read beyond the first paragraph. There is certainly some background knowledge, but both the good and the bad aspects of the Afghani situation lacked detail and were over-sentimentalised. Trite plot-lines, stereotyped characterisation and little beyond the coffee house itself is other than sketchy - I wanted to feel I knew Khabul better and I learned very little about it. The best thing about the novel is its pinpointing of the terrible attitude of the culture to women, but even that was somehow Disnified by the ending. The writing is really poor! - very simple and providing little except surface detail and some explicit repetitive character traits (little is left to the readers intelligence or interpretation). Finally shockingly prejudiced against the British, despite a nominally British character. I feel really cross at being accused of racism by an AMERICAN!!!! - (no sense at all of British, Danish etc troops in Afghanistan - the usual insular knee-jerk, American response - even when criticising their presence in the country.
on 24 August 2014
I was looking for a good book to take on holiday, and having enjoyed Khaled Hosseini's books about Afghanistan, most notably A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed, I hoped this would be something similar. I couldn't have been more wrong. It's like a bad American sitcom, based in a coffeeshop - but wait, there's a twist! They're in Afghanistan! Golly, what difficulty that will be, running a "proper western" coffeehouse (that phrase was uttered more than once) in a war zone! There's sure to be some action to be found here... but no. Don't read on if you don't want spoilers, because I'm going to break down this entire awful book for you in the following paragraphs.
The "main" character, Sunny, an American expat who decided for no particular reason that the reader is made aware of to set up a coffee shop in Kabul, has the terrible task throughout the story of having to do her job, build a wall, and try to decide which of the two (white and Western, of course) men in her life she wants to be with more. One is grumpy, buys her a dog she doesn't want but somehow learns to love instantaneously and has a wife, the other one keeps going away to do his job and is very handsome. In the entire book they don't seem to have any other discernible traits, other than of course being completely in love with Sunny. Who is also not particularly interesting, since all she does is run a coffeeshop (although she has an Afghan guard, Afghan cleaner, Afghan cook, and Afghan old-lady-who-helps-with-things, so really all she does is worry about money and send emails.)
Isabel is a journalist from London, who when we are first introduced we are told is very attractive and has massive breasts (great info, definitely needed to know) and was raped this one time when she was doing her job, in Africa where nasty rapey things happen, so she's all hardened to the world and stuff. Very complex. But wait, it gets more complex! She's Jewish! Not that this has any effect on the story whatsoever, although she does meet another Jewish person at one point. Presumably to make Jewish-American readers not feel sidelined during icky kum-ba-yah moments where Christians and Jews and Muslims all have a jolly coffeeshop time together - not that this makes much sense, as I doubt Afghanistan is currently particularly welcoming to anybody who clearly exhibits differing religious views to Islam. Isabel keeps doing her job, then realises that being a white journalist tends to have an effect on the people whose lives you are intruding into, and gets a healthy dose of white guilt syndrome. It's alright, though, because she lets herself get killed by a suicide bomber later, again for no discernible reason as far as the plot is concerned.
Candace, another white American woman (why does a book set in Afghanistan have more main Western characters than Afghan ones?) fell in love with a very handsome man called Wakil, who we learn early on is a massive idiot and only likes her for her money. Which since she's a lot older than him and filthy rich, along with being utterly self centred and naive, is understandable really. He is training little boys up to be suicide bombers, because he's not nice. We're not supposed to like Wakil, so perhaps that is supposed to make us like Candace. Unfortunately she's about as likeable as the ebola virus, so we're stuck with her.
Yazmina is ACTUALLY FROM AFGHANISTAN. Finally. She's pregnant, and her husband is dead and she's been kidnapped. This sounds more like a realistic portrayal of an Afghan woman. But instead she's basically a dressmaking Cinderella, who despite her utterly hopeless situation is rescued by the lovely white Western women who deign to help her, and gets to marry Sunny's Afghan guard. Not that I wanted this character to come to a grisly end, but in a way it would have been more realistic. I doubt many pregnant lone women in Afghanistan meet an attractive, friendly young man who is willing to take on a child that isn't his and get given a house and job by a wealthy white expat who's playing at owning a business, but clearly Yazmina has all the luck in the world.
Halajan is possibly the most tragic character, because she really did have such potential to be awesome. She is the elderly mother of Yazmina's new husband, who smokes and drinks and has short hair. She has progressive ideas and wants to see positive change in Kabul, to see an end to the beggars and the war. Sadly the book is far too preoccupied with her illicit letter-writing affair with a tailor called Rashif, who appears to be a lovely bloke, but very keen. He writes her letters every week for six years, never getting a reply, because she can't read. Perhaps he should have skyped her instead. Anyway, even though this should be grounds for big trouble since illicit love affairs are a big no-no in Afghanistan, Halajan's son has a sudden change of heart for no real reason and lets them get married. So it's all well that ends well.
Really, this book is a botched attempt. Debbie Rodriguez should have set it in downtown Missouri, it almost certainly would have made more sense there. Instead it comes across as an offensive portrayal of Afghanistan and its people, who cannot function without Westerners to fix everything for them, and whose stories are second to those of the utterly mundane day to day life of a coffeeshop. Having worked in a coffeeshop, it doesn't surprise me that its more or less the same in Afghanistan as anywhere else, except it's in a warzone. Debbie Rodriguez spent more time describing makeup and hairstyles and christmas decorations than she did thinking of a decent plot. I'm disappointed to have wasted £3 on this. Maybe if you like her writing, then this is for you, but frankly I think hairdressers are perhaps not authors for a reason. Debbie Rodriguez is almost certainly better at giving a straight fringe than she is at writing a compelling and realistic story.
on 25 November 2013
Having read a number of fiction books about Afghanistan (A Thousand Splendid Suns being my fabourite) I was keen to read this book following five women in Kabul. However I came away disappointed ands frustrated with the book and the author.
The first mistake the author made was taking on the challenge of trying to write five believable, well-rounded characters each with interesting and individual stories in a book of less than 400 pages. The author has seriously over-estimated their skills as a writer in my opinion. I found two of the characters, Candace and Isabelle, astonishingly pointless as they added nothing to the plot. Their own storylines seemed under-developed and crude. Isabelle in particular seemed like a character 'taped-on' to the book and the mention of her rape and visit to the "Only Jew in Kabul" was obviously the author separately trying to give the character some legotimacy. Candace came across as deeply unlikeable and jaw-droppingly naive. It was obvious from the first page of her introduction that Wakil was only using her for money yet the author stretched out this thinner than crepe paper story till the end of the book.
I found myself only caring about the Afghan characters of the book, I would flick through the pages until the plot returned to their stories. It felt like the author had no faith in her Afghan characters so introduced the pointless European and American characters to appeal to a Western audience. If she had concentrated on only the afghan characters (including the Hazari coffee house worker who I felt could have been a much more central character wit more of a story line) the book would have been richer, deeper and more interesting.
The authors writing style was irritating, as she's an American I can almost forgive her for the inaccurate use of 'bloody hell' by the British character, but found the use of the term 'thick British accent' annoying. What the hell is a thick British accent? Geordie, Cockney, Scouse? Turns out it was Middle-Class Southern accent, the accent all British characters have in American film and TV. Also I lost count of the times the women touched each other's arms. Isabelle touched Candace's arm, Sunny touched Isabelle's arm etc etc. Bizarrely one of the women but the back of their hand on the others shoulder at one point (why?).
Overall I found this book in need of at least half a dozen rewrites and a removal of two characters at least to be classed as a good read.