I first saw this book in a bookshop while browsing. It was a bit expensive for a totally blind try at a new author, so I didn’t buy it, but I did file her name away in the back of my mind. Not long after, she was mentioned on a mailing list I’m on, and I discovered this is actually the second book of two. Of course, that meant I had to go and find the first one and read that first. I tracked it down easily (I used the search engine on the local library’s website!) and borrowed it. Pomegranate Soup was a lovely novel about the three Iranian Arminpour sisters trying to open a Persian cafe and start a new life in a small Irish village. Even before I finished it, I’d put a reserve on the sequel.
In Rosewater and Soda Bread (isn’t that a lovely title?), it’s been a year since the end of Pomegranate Soup, and while there are still people in the village who view the sisters with suspicion, they are now well established and starting to feel settled. Marjan finds herself attracted to an Anglo-Irishman returned to Country Mayo to restore the family estate, Bahar is taking steps towards a new peace and major commitment and Layla and her boyfriend Malachy think they might be ready to take their relationship to the next level. Meanwhile, their landlady, Estelle, finds a young, pregnant girl washed ashore in the bay and takes her in, despite indications she has broken Irish law. Marjan becomes involved and eventually her sisters too. Everything weaves together in the end and Marjan comes to some significant realisations about her relationship with her sisters and her potential relationship with Julian.
I really enjoyed this book, more even than Pomegranate Soup. The magical element is less in this book, although there is some definite and at least partially mystical mystery about the girl Estelle rescues. I thought it worked better, as while Mehran tells a lovely story, she doesn’t do the blending in of magical realism as well as some authors (I am reminded noticeably of Sarah Addison Allen, since I read her books Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen recently). This book is more focused on Marjan than it is on Bahar and Layla, and while the latter still have significant roles in the story, it is largely filtered though how their actions affect Marjan and her understanding of them.
Mehran raises issues about Irish laws on birth control and abortion, but there is no preaching, just an indication of how complicated the situation is (the book is set in 1987 and I don’t know how things have or haven’t changed since then). I think the actions of the characters may give an indication of Mehran’s own opinions, but I could be totally wrong as their is nary a soapbox in sight and the characters all act true to themselves. Again, it is primarily Marjan’s reactions that the book explores, both as she tries to come to turns with Layla’s request that Marjan procure condoms for her and Malachy and as she explores the mystery of the stranger’s identity and actions.
Marjan’s tentative romance with Julian is delicately depicted as she tries to let go of her past to make a try for the future, and while I’m not totally convinced Julian is the man for her, I do believe this relationship is something she needs to explore. She begins to realise important things about herself in the process as she sees how circumstances have perhaps left her over-managing her sister’s lives.
The last paragraph, as she embraces Bahar’s choices even if she doesn’t understand them, was beautiful and a delightful way to end the book. I really hope Mehran is planning to tell us more about the Arminpour sisters as, while we left them all in a good place, there is clearly much of their story still to tell.
Rosewater and Soda Bread
Arminpour Sisters, Book 2