If you could guarantee your child a rich life in exchange for forfeiting your right to see her, would you do it? The question informs the engrossing new novel by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini, whose surprise international bestseller, The Kite Runner, so enchanted readers 10 years ago.
The child in question is Pari, whose long-suffering father arranges her adoption by a well-to-do Afghan and his half-French wife, Nila. Pari’s brother Abdullah stays behind, and their fates diverge in predictable ways: Pari becomes a professor of mathematics while Abdullah ends up selling kabobs.
The novel jumps backward and forward in time, with settings as diverse as Monterey, Paris, Kabul and Athens. The relationships between the far-flung cast members—including Idris, an Afghan-American physician, modeled probably on Hosseini himself; a Greek plastic surgeon and adventure photographer; a former Afghan jihadi and his iPod-toting son—are sometimes obscure. But the female characters steal the show, most notably Nila, who gleefully explodes the stereotype of the downtrodden Afghan woman. An acclaimed poet, as fond of men as she is enslaved to Chardonnay, she evokes a time when Kabul was downright chic.
Then there’s the flip side of the book’s opening dilemma. Having escaped, what obligation does one have to the motherland? Can an expat enjoy success when his or her country so desperately needs help? “For the price of that home theater,” Idris muses, “we could have built a school in Afghanistan.” After a trip back, he experiences worse culture shock upon returning to America, a situation familiar to anyone with experience in both countries. Ultimately Idris decides that Afghanistan was “something best forgotten.” But his story also suggests that life in America, with its stresses and mass distractions, is no Elysium either.
Do Pari and Abdullah reunite? Hosseini certainly isn’t given to facile resolutions. To the distances of space the novel adds the ravages of age. Ultimately, And the Mountains Echoed is about the human endeavor to transcend differences.