The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul
Author: Deborah Rodriguez, Publisher: Bantam, (1/5).
I will admit it from the outset; I didn’t finish this book. It looked like a light, easy read, probably about women with troubles finding friendship. My first mistake was to browse the back. A quote caught my eye: “as if Maeve Binchy had written The Kite Runner”. Thank Allah she didn’t, I thought, and began to read. But I couldn’t get the comparison out of my head. The Kite Runner is an amazing book that I will nonetheless probably never read again, because it broke my heart several times. The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul’s only point of comparison seems to be the country in which it is set. It begins with an American woman who has inexplicably moved from the comfort of Southern small-town life and set up a coffee shop in a war-ravaged country where it is not safe for her to walk alone (she does anyway, of course). She saves a poor, pregnant, rural woman from a grisly fate and impresses the natives with her colour TV. Various other characters are clumsily introduced, then ignored for a couple of chapters, then just when you’ve forgotten about them, they reappear – in the coffee shop. The limitations and problems one faces in a country still reeling from recent conflicts are touched on, but discussed in an almost nonchalant way. It was as if they were only there to set the scene rather than as a serious and thought-provoking issue for either the characters or the reader.
I began doubting that the author had in fact BEEN to Afghanistan. The book seemed well researched; she got names right and seemed to have an idea of religion and customs. But it felt more like she had a romanticised idea of what it must be like to live in such a foreign, strange place, cramming Afghan-isms and references to goats into every second sentence to make it “authentic”. This instead only highlighted the cheesiness of the characters and their relationships, which were shallow and poorly expressed.
Skipping to the “interview with the author” at the back, I found a different story.
She lived in Afghanistan for 5 years, give or take, where she (for reals) set up a beauty school for Afghan women who were just hopelessly inept at hairdressing. At some point she found out that her husband already had a wife, there are rumours of kidnap and extortion, and she eventually fled the country and returned to a now strangely empty life back in the US. All of this is no doubt explained at length in her memoir, The Kabul Beauty School, which I expect is much more interesting and realistic than her novel.
This information did make me reconsider my original harsh evaluation, and went a long way towards explaining how a hairdresser who is no Brontë sister managed to secure a publishing contract.
On the plus side, there are some great-looking recipes and some questions for refection upon at the back for when you hold your own book club party.