Ann Marlowe’s memoir-travelogue begins as a combination love affair between two unlikely people, spanning two cultures and an age difference of a decade, and the author’s intense interest in Afghanistan, a country she is planning to visit.
Soon to leave her lair in New York’s East Village for four weeks of teaching in a school in Afghanistan, Marlowe meets Amir through mutual friends. Amir fled Pakistan in 1982; a Princeton graduate, he is now employed in a New York engineering firm. The attraction isn’t immediate, but grows as the two spend time discussing Ann’s pending trip.
Contrary to her friends’ advice to avoid the romance, Ann keeps her own counsel, savoring the intimate moments with Amir, ignoring the forced distance when they are in public. In his defense, Amir clearly states his position on a planned arranged marriage and his eventual return to Afghanistan.
Abruptly the book shifts to Mazar-i-Sharif, Marlowe’s experiences in the Middle East rife with personal reactions to people and place: “I did not feel they were poor because they did not feel they were poor.” Moved by her host’s commitment to family and the land, Marlowe’s observations in Mazar-i-Sharif are a diary of impressions: the country, people, and customs compared to America.
In contrast, the chapters on Amir are more intimate, an examination of the male-female condition, the love affair already doomed in spite of the ease with which “love” seeps into the relationship. Returning home, Marlowe finds Amir increasingly distant and unavailable; she reacts with disbelief, clinging to memories of their passionate nights. In an effort to escape her heartbreak, Ann travels Iraq, in travelogue mode again: “Life in post-war Baghdad isn’t easy, even for the privileged.”
Back in New York, the author reveals the length of this great love affair: only five nights of shared bliss, a fraction of the time covered in the memoir. I feel duped; I have taken Marlowe at her word, assuming that Amir is equally involved in the relationship. The author has chosen a doomed affair, drama grist for the writer’s mill.
The author dissects cultural specifics, cousin-marriage (a favorite topic), religion, male-female relationships, war, friends and food, but how can I believe a writer who has been so deceptive about the true nature of the affair? The romance and the ready opinions assume a facile veneer, a justification for self-indulgence that leaves me doubting her veracity. By the way, an effusive back cover blurb is written by author James Frey. Why am I not surprised?