I’ve read a few online reviews suggesting that A Thousand Splendid Suns is not as good as Hosseini’s masterpiece first novel, The Kite Runner. With all due respect to the writers of those reviews, they are so, so very wrong. At least from my perspective. I thought this novel was, if anything, better and more compelling than The Kite Runner. From the moment I picked it up, I was completely drawn in to the story of two women, Mariam and Laila, who start out from very different places in life but end up drawn together in ways that are seem impossible and yet inevitable.
The huge canvas upon which this intimate story is painted is Afghanistan over the last 30 years — a country in an almost constant state of war, with alliances and allegiances constantly shifting. The same characters who cheer the departure of the Soviet occupying force and welcome the Taliban as liberators, find themselves almost immediately afterwards crushed by the harsh realities of Taliban rule. There are no heroes and no good guys except for the ordinary people trying to survive in a world of chaos — particularly the two women at the centre of this novel.
This is a book I should love, but I’m afraid I didn’t.
In my ceaseless quest for excellent Biblical fiction, I stumbled across Etzioni-Halevy’s earlier book, The Song of Hannah, last year and read it. I didn’t think it was as good as it could have been, but I was willing to try another book by her when I saw she had written about Ruth. Actually, this novel tells two stories: the first is the well-known love story of Ruth and Boaz with a few twists that didn’t make it into the Biblical narrative; the larger frame story is that of Osnath, a young girl who visits the home of Ruth’s descendants three generations later, falls in love with the handsome but bossy Eliab, and determines to dig out the truth of Ruth’s story even though Eliab is determined to keep it from her.
I’m still not entirely sure what I thought of this book. I didn’t dislike it, that’s for sure, but I also feel that I didn’t like it as much as I could have — it didn’t quite live up to its potential. Yet I did find it intriguing and read it very quickly, turning pages to figure out where the story was going.
The story unfolds on many levels. First, and primarily, it is the story of two cousins, Danny and Howie. Danny, a lifelong loser who always thinks he’s on the verge of making his “big break,” hasn’t seen his cousin Howie for many years (Howie, who was more of a loser in childhood, has actually had his Big Break and become rich and successful). But at Howie’s suggestion and on his dime, Danny leaves New York for an unnamed European location to help Howie renovate an ancient castle into a hotel.
Danny, who is the main character for this part of the novel, is not really a likable character — he resembles the kind of feckless losers I tend to fall in love with in fiction (not in real life, in recent years!) like Barnaby Gaitlin in Anne Tyler’s A Patchwork Planet — but with absolutely no charm and a basic selfishness that makes it hard to root for him. And yet … Danny grew on me. I found by the end of the novel that I did care about what happened to him.