Once in a while I come across a book that I just cannot get on board with – I won’t give up on it (I have a bizarre stubborn streak) but once I don’t like something, it’s very hard to sway me otherwise. Deborah Rodriguez’s The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul was one such book. I would go so far as to say that I loathed it.
Perhaps my expectations were too high. I anticipated a gritty novel about the plight of five women in “one of the most dangerous places on earth” (to quote the blurb). Instead, it was an over-the-top chick-lit/war novel hybrid that appeared not to really know what the point of the story was: was it about American expat Sunny’s struggle to maintain a business (even though, let’s face it, it was her choice to stay in Kabul)? Or, about Yazmina, a Hazara woman scared of what her life will become? Or, Halajan’s wish for the return of a more peaceful and open society? The characters of Candace and Isabel added nothing to the story, except to give the author a chance to mention the suffering of women in prison and schools training children to become terrorists. Both of these issues deserved more than a fleeting comment by an irritating American (Candace) and British stereotype (Isabel). And Halajan’s devout Muslim son, Ahmet, conveniently abandons his beliefs to allow for a neat, tidy end to the story that is far fetched and ridiculous.
Any novel set in Afghanistan will invite comparisons with Khaled Hosseini’s work. I read his bestseller The Kite Runner only a couple of months earlier and thought it was incredible. The fact that I say “it’s a fantastic book – one of my favourites” when the subject matter is so horrifying, just confirms to me how amazing his storytelling is. The narrative is informative, the characters are intriguing and the plot moves at a steady pace. And despite no definitive resolution, the reader doesn’t feel cheated at the end.
Rodriguez’s novel was too ambitious; it tried to cover too many stories about too many characters. Also, it’s slightly misleading to say it’s about women in Kabul – only Halajan and Yazmina have no choice about being in the city. Knowing that Rodriguez lived and worked in Kabul, I was expecting a story with an air of truth to it. Instead it reads like a hotch-potch of stories from her salon customers, all thrown in to one novel.
So is it a story about Afghanistan? Or is it chick-lit? Can it be both? In my opinion, no it cannot. The war backdrop does not mesh well with chick-lit predictability. Rodriguez would have been better off choosing one genre and one main plot. Maybe she fared better with The Kabul Beauty School – but I honestly have no inclination to find out if that is so.