Failed Out, Fitting In
Growing up cross-culturally in Bone Worship
by Molly Templeton
BONE WORSHIP, fiction by Elizabeth Eslami. Pegasus Books, 2010. Paperback, $15.95.
In plenty of coming-of-age novels, it’s the parents you have to be patient with. Seen from the kid’s point of view, they’re embarrassing, hopelessly out of date, mortifyingly inept in social situations. In Elizabeth Eslami’s debut, Bone Worship, Jasmine Fahroodhi’s parents definitely have their stumbles, but it’s Jasmine who requires your patience. Prickly, socially awkward and friendless, Jasmine has failed out of the University of Chicago just before graduation. Hints fall about specific reasons for this, but generally, Jasmine just doesn’t get along easily anywhere. She sulks and then bursts into vicious sarcasm; she doesn’t have a good grasp on small talk. More than anything, though, she’s indecisive: what to say, what to do, who to be. Her Iranian father and American mother have a simple plan for their troubled daughter’s future: They will arrange a marriage with an appropriate man. Jasmine tried to direct her life in her own way and failed, so her parents will put the pieces back together as they see fit.
Inappropriate suitors traipse through the middle of Bone Worship, lending themselves to comedy and awkwardness in turns, but Eslami’s novel is too warm and sincere to simply play misunderstandings and moments of cross-cultural conflict for laughs. Jasmine’s parents married for love, and they have their reasons for wanting something different for Jasmine; her American mother is often no easier for Jasmine to read than is her gruff, authoritative father, about whom Jasmine says she knows just seven things. Eslami is at her best when Jasmine, somewhat dreamily, begins to expound upon those things, writing stories in the margins of books. The narration shifts, slipping into an almost fairy-tale cadence as Jasmine takes a fact and leaps ahead of it, describing details she could never know as she imagines her father as a serious, silent child, occasionally and unintentionally cruel. If he won’t talk about himself, she’ll find a way to see him anyway.
When things start to wind up, Bone Worship’s plot plays out just a touch too neatly. A Thanksgiving dinner closes in a tangle of unlikely timing, and Jasmine’s gentle transformation — which, nicely, comes about through her discovery of work she loves as much as it does through a romantic prospect — is a little on the swift side. Eslami is strongest when Jasmine is directionless, her thoughts mostly focused on her parents, whom she gradually comes to understand and accept. Jasmine is the embodiment of her family’s cross-cultural tensions; she can’t accept either the arranged marriage, in which her decision is made for her, or the freedom to choose whoever and whatever she likes. Tentatively, messily and satisfyingly, she finds her own way.
Elizabeth Eslami reads from Bone Worship at 7:30 pm Thursday, Jan. 28, at Tsunami Books.
Not the Only Dreamers
The American Library Association holds a big press conference in mid-January to announce award-winning books for kids and teens, and I followed librarian friends’ Twitter feeds from the awards announcements. When the Sibert medal for nonfiction went to Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream (Candlewick, 2009), I pumped my fist and said (both out loud and on Twitter), “YES!!”
This book profiles women in the 1960s who were not only perfectly qualified to be astronauts but also, in some cases, far more qualified than the men who got the jobs. Stone, with an excellent grasp on making the archival record tell a story, includes an infuriating letter written by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson that denied women any chance in space. As a kid in the 1980s, I didn’t understand why Sally Ride’s astronaut status was such a big deal, but reading Almost Astronauts helped me see that she truly stood on the shoulders of giants. This is a great book for teens, but adults too will find the beautifully written, exquisitely documented history a splendid addition to the knowledge shelf. — Suzi Steffen