The Stationery Shop
by Marian Kamali
image of The Stationery Shop book
The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali is your typical romance novel. Set in Tehran, Iran in the 1950s, Roya meets a boy named Bahman in, you guessed it, a stationery shop (stationery with an ‘e’ because long live the queen). As their high school years come to an end, marked by final exams and the consideration of which university to attend, they begin to date. Their relationship is marked by exchanges of Rumi poems in the company of the sweet old man, Mr. Fakhri, who runs the stationery shop, and visiting cafes together, where Bahman introduces Roya to exotic pastries, all under the disapproving eye of Bahman’s mother, Mrs. Aslan.

As Roya and Bahman are walking home from Cinema Metropole one night after a movie, Bahman “asks” Roya to marry him. (warning: extremely CRINGE dialogue to follow)

Bahman suddenly stopped and went quiet.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’ve been wanting to know…” He looked nervous. “ For a while now. I’ve just been wanting to ask, Roya…” His voice broke off at her name, cracking like a thirteen-year-old’s. From the middle of the sidewalk, he gently pulled her to the side near a shrub so large that its greenery and flowers spilled out and made a nook. Suddenly they were blanketed by the sweeping scent of blossoming jasmine, heady and full.

He looked at her, and she was surprised to see how vulnerable he seemed, standing there.

She didn’t let him get the words out, there was no need; she didn’t play games. In the fog of jasmine, she kissed him. It was like landing somewhere she should have been all alone, a different plane, soft and unbelievably seductive — a place completely theirs but one she’d never dared explore. The taste of him, his arms around her, his body against hers as she continuede to kiss felt boundless. When she finally drew back, he looked flushed, overwhelmed.

“I think that’s a yes.” He looked like he could fall.

This story takes place during the turbulent period in which the British government attempts to forcibly remove Iran’s Prime Minister Mossadeq (perhaps I will rescind my former ‘long live the queen’ sentiment), and Bahman is a fervent political activist in his favor. Given the events we’ve seen in Iran in recent weeks, it’s prescient to reflect on the context in which this book takes place, as it is a direct parent to the human rights crisis and fights for freedom in present-day Iran.

Bahman’s mother makes it abundantly clear that Roya is not good enough for him. She does not respect Roya’s family, who stands with Mossadeq, as does her son. Mrs. Aslan thinks it is futile to worry about the ever-changing tides of the political state of the nation, that her family is above such trivialities. I wish the political context of the times had been given more weight here — that there was something to offset the wildly simplistic and juvenile ambiance of the story. The Montagues-and-Capulets themes were annoying, and only added an unnecessary feud to a story that could have been more politically grounded. The tension between the political and relational narratives should have been more central instead of Mrs. Aslan’s character feeling like a mean girl stoking unnecessary drama.

In the midst of planning their wedding, Bahman disappears suddenly and without explanation. From an unknown location, he writes to Roya to meet him at a square in the center of town so they can just go to the court house and get married in secret, forgoing the formal wedding plans altogether. When Roya arrives to meet him, not only is Bahman nowhere to be found, but a protest breaks out. Roya is caught in the crossfires as the protest turns to mayhem and witnesses a terrible act of violence as she waits. She is left to process this while also wondering what’s happened to Bahman.

It’s a predictable arc: two young people fall in love, plan to marry, but are then sabotaged by a disapproving party — their fate was never to spend their lives together.

Roya and Bahman eventually find their way back to each other only decades later and at the end of their lives. Only then are they able to redeem the time that was taken from them and attempt to cover all the lost ground (the marriages they diverged into, the children, the different ways they accumulated grief over the years, the general ennui that comes with a life) and untangle the mess that separated them from each other all those years ago.

Ultimately (*spoiler alert*) Bahman dies shortly after Roya finds her way back to him, but not before they are able to clear the air of the belief each holds that the other one abandoned them.

I read The Stationery Shop for a book club meeting that ended up getting canceled and has yet to be rescheduled. Would I have read it otherwise? Probably not. It barely held my attention, and I can’t say I’d be compelled to read it if it hadn’t been “assigned.” There’s not much I connected with intimately in this one. It is a disposable romance novel at best, maybe even serving a YA audience. I also found certain passages to be overly-explained for the sake of an American audience. There was so much fluff from the extra clarifications about what Norwuz is and the function of a cafe in Tehran. Better writing could've more effectively integrated the tenets of Iranian culture in more elegant ways and strengthened the connections between the characters and the context in which they were living.