In the genre of memoirs (which includes based-on-a-true-story, autobiographical novels), I’ve noticed two distinct categories: the titles you read for the importance of the story, and the memoirs that also turn out to be fabulous examples of great literature. Psychologist Rahimeh Andalibian‘s writing debut represents the former; that said, so little is known Stateside beyond the fear-inducing headlines about the Middle East that a personal account of one family’s experiences is a welcome, humanizing addition to any library.
In the holy city of Mashhad – the second largest in Iran after Tehran – Andalibian and her family lived in luxury in her father’s hotel. “The Rose Hotel and I shared a rare destiny: I was born the day my Baba’s grand hotel opened.” As the only daughter of a devout, wealthy Muslim family, Andalibian grew up both privileged and protected.
The events leading up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution – marked by the creation of an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini after overthrowing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – too soon destroys the family’s comfortable life. Trouble literally arrives in the hotel’s entrance when Andalibian’s father is asked to imprison, then is later forced to employ, two young men who are known rapists, who allegedly repent their vicious crimes. “If only Baba had never allowed the Ayatollah to turn his hotel into a prison; if only Maman had not relented …,” Andalibian, who was just 4 at the time, writes in hindsight decades later.
Tragedy begets tragedy: Andalibian’s eldest brother runs away and is arrested by an unforgiving regime. The family seeks impossible assistance to reclaim their son, moving from refuge to refuge throughout Iran and beyond. Their scattered lives converge temporarily in London, until what is initially presented as a vacation to California becomes a permanent move.
Beliefs are challenged, morals as twisted, fortunes are lost and made and lost again, and most painful of all, multiple family schisms cause irreparable damage. In the midst of neverending chaos, well-intended lies, and wrenching tragedy, Andalibian comes of age caught between the stifling traditions of a world long gone, and the young adult’s need to push boundaries and establish independence. She mourns, falters, grieves, hopes, celebrates, and – clearly helped by committing 33 years of what she has “questioned, listened, and investigated” to the page – finds self-acceptance and peace.
As literary narrative, Hotel suffers especially from uneven pacing, moving from too much information to sudden gaps; the writing wavers, too, between overly simplistic and unnecessarily florid. Having decided to call it a ‘novel’ – clearly marked on the book’s cover – Andalibian seemingly gave herself room to mold and shape her story. Making a few further adaptations to her experiences would undoubtedly have resulted in a better novel. Once begun, however, the pages will keep turning; like a train wreck, averting the eyes from Andaliban’s ‘you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up’-life story proves nearly impossible.