|Behnaz Sarafpour, Iranian designer|
Her story begins when she is arrested in Tehran for leafleting against the repression of the Shah of Iran. She is a student, just 19. Her family gets her out of prison within the hour, but they are afraid her activities will endanger the family. They find a young Iranian man to marry her, a doctor in Baltimore. Maryam and Kiyan get to know each other in Tehran and by the time he returns to America, Kiyan “fills every inch of Maryam’s head.” Within days of a proxy marriage, she follows him.
In America Maryam, to stave off homesickness, “used to set a tumbler of club soda on her nightstand. She used to go to sleep listening to the bubbles bounce against the glass with a faint, steady, peaceful whispering sound that had reminded her of the fountains in her family’s courtyard back home.” She becomes an American citizen and has a son, Sami, who refuses to speak Farsi from the time he is five. When Sami is 14, Kiyan dies and Maryam raises Sami by herself, working as an administrator at a pre-school.
We meet Maryam in present day in an airport where she and her son and his wife Ziba are waiting for the arrival of their adopted Korean baby. An American family, the Donaldsons, is also waiting, with balloons, signs, lots of fanfare. Bitsy, the American mother, in her expansive way, invites Maryam’s family to celebrate this occasion every year, hoping the two little girls will grow up together and become friends.
Maryam falls in love with the perfect little baby, Susan, whom she takes care of two days a week while Ziba goes to work. Maryam dresses with the utmost care, even to babysit. In America, she felt like a guest. “Still and forever a guest, on her very best behavior.” Sami and Ziba increasingly fall under the spell of the American Donaldsons, however, even buying a house a few doors down from them. Bitsy Donaldson has all kinds of ideas about child-raising, about which she is very vocal.
As Anne Tyler tells it, the story afford all kinds of opportunities to contrast the American and Iranian households. Maryam does not get along with Ziba’s family, particularly, because they left Iran when the Shah was deposed, having been in favor of him. She does not talk politics with them, but they share favorite foods and new year’s customs. The Americans have their preferred ways of doing things, all of which becomes complicated for Maryam when Bitsy’s mother dies of cancer and, over time, her widowed father becomes fascinated by Maryam.
Maryam does not return Dave’s interest. He is rumpled and shambling, though fascinated by Iranian culture. To Dave, however, “other women seemed lackluster when he compared them with Maryam. They didn’t have her calm dark gaze or her elegant, expressive hands. They didn’t convey her sense of stillness and self-containment, standing alone in a crowd.” Maryam and Dave begin spending time together, and both the Iranian and the American families begin wondering what this means.
Maryam tells Dave it isn’t easy being foreign. “You can start to believe that your life is defined by your foreignness. You think everything would be different if only you belonged.” But Dave tells her, “You belong. You belong just as much as I do, or, who, or Bitsy or … It’s just like Christmas. [The little girls had complained they wanted a ‘real Christmas.’] We all think the others belong more.”
When Dave asks Maryam to marry him at a big family party, Maryam is embarrassed into saying “yes.” But the next morning she tells everyone it was a mistake. She cannot marry Dave. “He is so American,” she tells her son. “He takes up so much space. He seems to be unable to let a room stay as it is; always he has to alter it, to turn on the fan or raise the thermostat or play a record or open the curtains. He has cluttered my life with cell phones and answering machines and a fancy-shmancy teapot that makes my tea taste like metal.” She goes back to her simple, orderly life with her cat and doesn’t see Dave any more. She does notice how small her life has become, however.
In the end, Maryam runs into Dave, they talk. Maryam is again invited to a Donaldson party. She plans to attend, she gets dressed, but it gets late, she isn’t sure. Then, she looks out of her house and all of the Donaldsons are on her doorstep! When she doesn’t answer they start to walk away. Maryam calls to them, “Wait!”
Anne Tyler was herself married to an Iranian immigrant, the child psychiatrist Taghi Modarressi. The character Maryam must surely be drawn from life. Tyler was also raised a Quaker in isolated circumstances and subsequently had a strong sense of being an outsider. William Faulkner once said, “No wonder people in the rest of the world don’t like us, since we seem to have neither taste nor courtesy, and know and believe in nothing but money.” The figure of the lovely, self-possessed Maryam is a fine portrayal of a woman for whom taste is a way of living.