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Lipstick in Afghanistan
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Lipstick in Afghanistan

4.0 22
by Roberta Gately

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Roberta Gately’s lyrical and authentic debut novel—inspired by her own experiences as a nurse in third world war zones—is one woman’s moving story of offering help and finding hope in the last place she expected.

Gripped by haunting magazine images of starving refugees, Elsa has dreamed of becoming a nurse since she was a teenager. Of


Roberta Gately’s lyrical and authentic debut novel—inspired by her own experiences as a nurse in third world war zones—is one woman’s moving story of offering help and finding hope in the last place she expected.

Gripped by haunting magazine images of starving refugees, Elsa has dreamed of becoming a nurse since she was a teenager. Of leaving her humble working-class Boston neighborhood to help people whose lives are far more difficult than her own. No one in her family has ever escaped poverty, but Elsa has a secret weapon: a tube of lipstick she found in her older sister’s bureau. Wearing it never fails to raise her spirits and cement her determination. With lipstick on, she can do anything—even travel alone to war-torn Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.

But violent nights as an ER nurse in South Boston could not prepare Elsa for the devastation she witnesses at the small medical clinic she runs in Bamiyan. As she struggles to prove herself to the Afghan doctors and local villagers, she begins a forbidden romance with her only confidant, a charming Special Forces soldier. Then, a tube of lipstick she finds in the aftermath of a tragic bus bombing leads her to another life-changing friendship. In her neighbor Parween, Elsa finds a kindred spirit, fiery and generous. Together, the two women risk their lives to save friends and family from the worst excesses of the Taliban. But when the war waging around them threatens their own survival, Elsa discovers her only hope is to unveil the warrior within. Roberta Gately’s raw, intimate novel is an unforgettable tribute to the power of friendship and a poignant reminder of the tragic cost of war.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A lipstick-loving nurse finds romance and friendship in war-torn Afghanistan in this nicely intentioned but trite debut. Ever since seeing photographs of the Rwandan genocide as a teenager, Boston nurse Elsa has dreamed of doing good for those less fortunate, so soon after Aide du Monde asks her to travel to Afghanistan to assist at a medical clinic, she's settling in a house recently vacated by the Taliban. Elsa quickly adjusts to her new life and work at the clinic, and though warned against fraternizing with the U.S. soldiers stationed nearby, she predictably falls for a handsome lieutenant. She also befriends a local woman who shares her love of lipstick, and the pair routinely endanger themselves in order to help others, culminating in a dangerous trip to scout a location for a school. Though the lipstick gimmick ("her lips colored a daring red for confidence") quickly gets old and the prose is pedestrian, Gately, a nurse who spent six months in Bamiyan, succeeds in pulling off the fish-out-of-water aspect of the story, giving readers an Afghanistan that occasionally has the tang of the real deal. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
“[Gately gives] readers an Afghanistan that…has the tang of the real deal.” –Publishers Weekly

“[Gately is] a supremely gifted writer and eloquent ambassador for the people who have been banished from civilized society…” –Mark Fritz, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist & author of Lost on Earth: Nomads in the New World

"Gately’s absorbing debut transports readers to the small Afghan village of Bamiyan in the months after 9/11. A volunteer for a French relief organization, Elsa Murphy, a young nurse, has left her tragic life behind in Boston in the hopes of finding a purpose by providing aid and medical care in Afghanistan. Living without running water and on rationed kerosene, the one comfort from home Elsa allows herself is lipstick, which helps her retain her identity behind the veil she wears. Elsa’s work engenders two relationships that will change her life: a friendship with Parween, a young, strong-willed Afghani widow whose hatred of the Taliban is born out of unimaginable loss, and a romance with Mike, a handsome, brave U.S. soldier with flashing blue eyes. Though the Taliban have largely been driven out by the soldiers, Elsa learns they are still very much a presence. In this utterly engrossing read, Gately vividly evokes the beauty and tragedy of Afghanistan, where she, like Elsa, worked as a nurse after 9/11." - Booklist

Library Journal
Drawing on her own experiences as a humanitarian relief nurse, debut novelist Gately presents the story of Elsa Murphy, a young Boston nurse posted to an Aide du Monde clinic in rural Afghanistan. As a teenager, Elsa saw photos of starving Rwandan children in an issue of Time and immediately knew her calling. She faced many obstacles to obtaining her dream: she was living in poverty and helping her mother raise the disabled daughter of Elsa's drug-addicted older sister. But she persevered, gaining confidence from her use of cheerful lipsticks, and graduated nursing school; the day she completed her requisite year of emergency room service, she applied to Aide du Monde. Once in Afghanistan, Elsa makes friends widely. Among them is a plucky young widow, Parween, who has memories of happier days wearing lipstick and exploring the Buddha caves before the Taliban came to power. Elsa and Parween stand out in a cast of engaging characters. VERDICT Gately reveals a much smaller slice of life than Khaled Hosseini shared in A Thousand Splendid Suns, but hers is still an informative glimpse into the lives of women in challenging times. Recommended for readers who like to explore unfamiliar worlds. Appended questions make it also an appealing choice for book clubs.—Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll. Lib.

Product Details

Gallery Books
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5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Lipstick in Afghanistan


Boston, 1994

It was the hopelessness in their eyes that held sixteen-year-old Elsa’s attention. The black and white images of starving, big-bellied babies gripped her with horror, but one photo in particular haunted her—a close-up of a skeletal mother holding a shriveled baby while two other gaunt children clung to her frail arms. It felt like they were looking right at Elsa.

She read the caption, which explained that they were refugees who’d escaped a quick death at the hands of rebel tribesmen only to be trapped in a life of misery. They weren’t just starving, the story said, they were dying. All four suffered from malaria and dysentery, and without help they would likely be dead in one month’s time.

Elsa flipped back to the cover to check the magazine’s issue date and her eyes widened.

The magazine was two months old.

A strange feeling—a kind of numbness—came over her, and she sat on the floor, her knees bent up, supporting the magazine. She turned the page and held her breath as she read.

As the tragedy in Rwanda deepens and the death toll continues to rise, world leaders seem paralyzed, unable to act. It is only the valiant efforts of a few doctors and nurses that are making a difference, snatching thousands from death’s certain grip. But more relief workers are needed and the UN has issued an urgent plea for help.

Elsa read the words again and then turned the page.

A large picture revealed hundreds of women and children standing in what seemed to be an endless line, waiting for their food rations. The women, and even the small children, seemed lifeless as they waited their turn. None of them looked at the camera. It was a photograph of utter despair.

Elsa sighed and ran her fingers over the picture. She turned to the next page and found a series of photos, all of corpses—endless rows of babies and children, entire families, lying in the road or in fields, clinging to one another in death. Her hand flew to her mouth, and she closed her eyes.

But when she opened them, the bodies were still there. She turned back to the first page and read the story again. She lingered over that first image, the one of the dying mother and her young children. She wondered where they were, if they’d died or somehow been rescued. It was hard to believe that people lived like this.

How could she ever complain about her own life again?

She paused at a shiny picture of a nurse cradling a baby. The nurse seemed to be crying. The caption explained that the baby was dead and the nurse was looking for his mother.

A nurse, she thought, doing something that matters.

Elsa closed the magazine, breathing deeply to calm herself, before she glanced at her watch. Four o’clock! Jeez, where did the time go? She quickly gathered her remaining books onto her cart and hurried to the library’s front desk.

“Sorry, Miss James, I lost track of time.” She needed this job; she couldn’t afford to be fired. “I’ll finish these tomorrow.”

The old librarian, fidgeting with her hearing aid, smiled up at Elsa. “What, dear?”

“I’ll finish tomorrow,” Elsa almost shouted. “And this,” she said, holding out the magazine, “can I keep it? It’s two months old.”

“You want the magazine?” Miss James confirmed. “That’s fine, dear.”

Elsa trudged home along the narrow, crowded streets, the magazine stuffed into her backpack. If she hurried, her mother could still get to work on time. Rushing into the house, she pulled the magazine from her bag and showed the pictures to her mother.

“Oh God, Elsa, why do you look at that stuff? Jesus, it’s awful,” her mother said, slipping her arms into her old coat.

“But, Mom, I was thinking, I could be a nurse, maybe help someday.”

“That’s just a wish, don’t ya think? Nothin’ good ever came from wishing for things you can’t have. Look around, honey. We’re in the crummiest three-decker in the crummiest part of Dorchester. And with Diana getting sicker, I don’t see things getting any better.”

“But if we don’t wish for more or try for more, things will never change.”

“I’ve worked two jobs since your father died, and every single day, I’ve wished things would be easier. I just don’t want you to be disappointed is all.”

But Elsa was disappointed. She was always wishing for things she couldn’t have—her friend Annie’s wild red hair, a nice house, a real family. There was always something else she wanted. God knows, there was a lot to wish for when you lived in Dorchester.

“Learn to be happy with what you’ve got, Elsa. There’s always someone else who’s got it worse.”

“That’s just it—these refugees have got it worse. I want to help.”

“Well, you can start with Diana. I fed her, but she needs to be changed and put to bed. I’ll see you later.” With a quick peck on the cheek, her mother left for work, the second shift at the supermarket where she rang up groceries she could barely afford.

Life isn’t fair, Elsa thought glumly, but that doesn’t mean you just sit back and accept it. She shed her coat and moved toward Diana, who sat awkwardly in an oversized high chair. Unable to hold her head up, it bobbed on her spindly neck until Elsa set a pillow behind her.

“There, Diana. Is that better?” she cooed.

Diana, the four-year-old daughter of Elsa’s older sister, Janice, was hopelessly disabled, or so the doctors said. It took all of Elsa and her mother’s efforts just to feed and take care of Diana. Janice was never home, and her brother, Tommy, the oldest of the three, only came home long enough to swipe money from either his mother or Elsa.

It hadn’t always been that way. Though money had always been tight, they’d been a family once, and when Diana was born, she’d brought smiles and laughter into the house, at least for a while. Those were the good days, when even Annie, Elsa’s only close friend, still came around.

Annie had lived with her Polish grandmother in another dingy three-decker on the next corner. It was Annie who’d sat with Elsa when she’d fed, changed, and babysat Diana, and it was Annie who’d poked through Janice’s bureau drawers one afternoon until she discovered an old tube of lipstick called “Misty Mauve.” At Elsa’s urging, Annie had opened it and swiped it across her lips. Though the color was hopelessly outdated, they’d taken turns applying it.

Annie, her red hair straining against the elastic that held it back, had peered into the mirror and declared that it was a bad color for her. “With my hair, I need something brown. This is awful.”

Elsa, small and narrow, had always wished for hair like Annie’s, something that would set her apart. When it was her turn, she’d stood in front of the mirror and swiped the waxy mauve over her mouth. She’d pressed her lips together to spread the stain and peered at her reflection, suddenly boasting violet-colored lips. Against her brown hair, the color had been perfect. She’d turned to Annie.

“Well, what do you think?”

Annie had looked at her friend admiringly.

“You look beautiful, Elsa. You should wear lipstick all the time.”

Elsa had looked in the mirror and smiled again. The face that stared back at her was pretty—really pretty—she had to admit. She’d grinned at her reflection as though she were seeing herself for the first time—shiny hair, creamy skin, upturned nose, and full violet lips. The very act of applying the lipstick—the gentle stroke of color, the pressing of her lips to spread it evenly, and finally, the gaze into the mirror—fascinated her.

This lipstick is amazing, Elsa had thought. It didn’t just put color on her lips, it put an unmistakable glow in her green eyes and made her feel, if only for an instant, as though she were somebody, like one of those important women in the fancy magazines. Women who mattered wore lipstick. She smiled at her reflection again.

“Jeez, Elsa,” Annie had declared. “You were made for lipstick.”

I am, Elsa had thought. I really am.

The memory of that afternoon still made her smile, and though Annie had long since moved away, Elsa’s love of lipstick was the same. A swipe of bold plum or soft pink was enough to raise her spirits, and in Dorchester, that was a necessity.

Lipstick was magic.

Meet the Author

A nurse, humanitarian aid worker, and writer, Roberta Gately has served in war zones ranging from Africa to Afghanistan. She has written extensively on the subject of refugees for the Journal of Emergency Nursing, as well as a series of articles for the BBC Worlds News Online. She speaks regularly on the plight of the world’s refugees and displaced.

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Lipstick in Afghanistan 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book was too rushed and nothing about the situation in Afghanistan seemed accurate. The only descent part was in the beginning when Elsa was in America training to become a nurse. Her relationship with the soldier didn't seem realistic at all. Originally I was interested in Parween's story because she was a girl living in Afghanistan. As a child it seemed to give an accurate portrayal, but following the rise of the Taliban she didn't act at all like a woman from Afghanistan should act. Spoiler alert Particularly in the end when she decided impulsively to go to a dangerous part of Afghanistan dressed as a man and got killed by the taliban. The story didn't really flow and was altogether way to rushed. i was greatly disappointed.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After reading books such as A Thousand Splendid Sons and the Kite Runner, I was searching for my next big Afghan fiction fix. When I stumbled across this book, I was ecstatic. As a pre-nursing student and a lover of novels taking place in Afghanistan, I immediately swooped it up and began to read. Elsa, in my opinion, was an incredibly gawky, annoying, and naive character. Half the time, I wanted to smack her over the head. The dialogue was so awkward at times, that I actually felt embarrassed for her. I was cringing - literally. The whole romance with the soldier was kind of silly, too. At least, in the way it was played out. The whole book felt rather rushed when it came to the subjects of their "budding romance" and the ending. The beginning as well was just rather unrealistic, the way it sped through her pre-college and post-college and career life. At times, the author was overly descriptive when it came to Elsa and her surroundings. There's a fine line between too little and too much detail, and sadly Ms. Gately failed to effectively straddle that line. I honestly don't need to know the variable colors and designs of every single thing around her! It just adds to the unnatural feel that the writing has to it. Writing needs to flow, not make the reader want to put the book down! One thing I did enjoy was the frequent use of the Dari language. The lack of use when it came to contractions in the the English lines of the novel was painful though. "I do not know" "I cannot say" "I did not see it" "We should not go there" Not exact lines from the book, but a good example as to why the dialogue is just... bleh.
SammySueSC More than 1 year ago
Great book!!! It was hard to put down, and that makes it a quick read! I looked forward to coming home just so I could read this one!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jennmarie68 More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book. I loved it so much that I can't think of the right words to describe it, at least not any that would do it justice. The story was so heartwarming, sad, happy, and touching. It was so sad and yet was filled with so much joy. When I started reading it I didn't really expect the story that unfolded. At first I didn't understand the whole thing with the lipstick, but as the story progressed it was such a great way of tying the characters to each other. The story jumps a between Elsa and Parween until their lives cross. The tragedy that follows each of these women seems almost unbearable, but yet they've pulled through it and made the most of their lives. Both women are so strong and give all they have to help others. Even putting their lives on the line to help those in need. The romance that blooms throughout the book is such a great addition to the story. With so much devastation and sadness in the story adding the different romances kept the story enjoyable. Without the romance added in the story would have been so full of grief and sorrow that it would have almost been oppressive to read. Overall I would say this is one of the best books I've ever read. Gately's writing is amazing. Her ability to tell a story like this is nothing short of amazing. It really makes you think. And it shows that just because people are surrounded by hatred, war, and fathom doesn't mean you have to fill your heart with those things. Happiness is what you make of it and these characters really made me realize that. A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher. This is not a paid review and is a truthful and honest review.
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Jenna Regan More than 1 year ago
wht a heartwarming story this was, i loved it so much, it really gave me a glimpse of what a hard lifee otheer people have. i strongly reccomend it.
BookwormHeather More than 1 year ago
This is one book I will definitely read again! I could not put it down, and finished it in a matter of days. I hope Roberta writes a sequel and I am looking forward to reading more books by this upcoming author.
Justsooze More than 1 year ago
"Roberta Gately draws on her own experience as a war zone nurse in her compelling book "Lipstick in Afghanistan". Elsa was 16 years old when the image of victims of war in Rwanda inspired her with the desire to help others. Although she comes from a poor background in Boston, she overcomes obstacles to become a nurse and after the required training in an ER there, she is accepted by an aid organization to work in Afghanistan. In Bamiyan, she is faced with the reality of life in a war-torn area, which is so much harder than she imagined. She struggles to adapt to the culture and restrictive customs, but finds ultimately optimism, hope and friendship in the midst of the oppression of the Taliban. She makes life-altering friendships in Parween, a young Afghani woman and Mike a Special Forces solider. Ms. Gately interestingly uses a tube of lipstick and what it means to the various young women in the book to weave a common thread between them. Although a quick read, it will give the reader a lot to think about and book clubs a lot to discuss."
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sandiek More than 1 year ago
Growing up poor in Boston, Elsa is determined to help those worse off than her family. Several events helped her carve out her lifework. One was helping her mother care for her disabled niece, who died young. Another was seeing the pictures of families, especially the children, dying of famine in Biafra. Elsa becomes determined to become a nurse, and with hard work, manages to do so. Shortly after her graduation, two things occur. Her mother dies and 9-11 occurs. Elsa is determined to go overseas to help however she can. She contacts a relief organization and they soon come up with an assignment for her. She will go to a small town in Afghanistan called Bamiyan and work in a clinic, helping the villagers. Elsa is excited and scared, but agrees to go. She is astonished at much she finds there. The poverty is overwhelming. For the next year, she will bathe only sparingly, as her bathroom is a bucket and a latrine. There is no electricity and the food is sparse. But Elsa finds her calling helping the sick villagers. There are also people who have been injured by Taliban forces, and Elsa finds that many hate the Taliban for the things they do and inflict on their own people. The way women are treated is another cultural shock. Elsa makes a close female friend, Parween. Parween was lucky enough to find a husband who valued her mind and taught her to read and write and do math. They have a daughter and are a happy family. When the Taliban moves into town, everything changes. They blow up centuries-old heritage icons such as the huge Buddhas that have stood guard over the village. They impose strict Muslim law and the women must cover up and cannot walk around town. Finally, as the villagers start to revolt, they round up many of the men and massacre them; Parween's husband among them. Roberta Gately has written a compelling debut novel. It explores the fate of the Afghan people, and the nature of female friendships that can endure regardless of war, poverty and other troubles. The reader is swept into Elsa's world, and with her, starts to understand the complexities of the region and the difficulties of helping in many cases. This book is recommended for readers interested in female stories about overcoming challenges.
jewelknits More than 1 year ago
This book tells the story of two women living in two continents with lives that at times parallel each other and later intersect. The first, Elsa, grows up in the rough neighborhood of Dorchester with a mother who works two jobs just to give them sustenance. She works at the library after school to help with family expenses and then runs home to take care of Diana, her 4-year-old disabled niece, just in time for her mother to go to her second job. The second, Parween, grows up in Afghanistan. After losing their father to war, her mother moved with her and her two older brothers to Bamiyan. It is Afghan custom for the brother of a widow to marry her to keep the family cared for, Parween's father didn't have a brother, so they move in with Parween's uncle Abdullah. They are fortunate, because Abdullah is rather liberal, and the women of the house are allowed much freedom. Both women lose childhood friends: Elsa's only friend, Annie, moves away, and Parween's best friend Mariam, is married off to an old man as his third wife at the age of fifteen, and moves to a village an hour's drive away. Both women have an adoration for lipstick. Although Parween is not allowed to wear lipstick in public (other than for special celebrations), she loves the life it brings to her face. For Elsa, lipstick always lifts her spirits. Elsa, after being mentored by a hospital nurse who took care of her niece Diana, becomes a nurse. She has always been determined to help those in need, so after a year as an ER nurse, she volunteers as an aide worker with Aide du Monde, a French aid organization based in New York. Five months after 9/11, she takes a position in Bamiyan, the home of the Buddhas. We read the story of Parween's marriage and her life, and we read of Elsa's transition to a life working at a clinic in a foreign country with few supplies, living in a house with no running water or electricity. Parween's story also tells us of the freedoms and lives lost when the Taliban descend on Bamiyan, and we learn more about how most Afghanis really feel about the Taliban. There is so much wrapped up in this novel: romance, and loss, and friendship. For a while, I lived with both Elsa and Parween. At the end, I was wiping away tears. This is a well-written, fictionalized account of two strong women and what happens when they come together. Although the story's protagonists are women, this is a story that is gender-neutral. I think any person who loves to read a good book will love this one. QUOTES: She paused at a shiny picture of a nurse cradling a baby. The nurse seemed to be crying. The caption explained that the baby was dead and the nurse was looking for his mother. A nurse, she thought, doing something that matters. Fortunately, the workload was relatively light, and she rushed through the rest of her day. Then she hurried home to take a bath even though it had been only three days since her last one. She hadn't been this clean since she'd arrived in Bamiyan Finally, the plane appeared, slipping through the mountaintops and flying in low to land. Just then, an errant cow wandered onto the runway and the small plane was forced back into the sky. Villagers ran to the cow and coaxed him back off the dirt landing strip. Several minutes later, the plane finally landed, and the irate pilot jumped out to scream at the villagers about the cow.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In Boston, Nurse Elsa Murphy wants to work at an overseas clinic in an impoverished nation. Her motivation was the news clips and photos of the Rwanda genocide back in `1994 when she was part of a poverty stricken household consisting of her single mom, her infant niece and an addicted sister. Thus in 2002 when Aide du Monde assigns her work at a medical clinic in a rural area of Afghanistan she is exhilarated. After a long journey made easier by kind guides starting in Pakistan, Elsa arrives at remote Bamiyan home to the Hazara. She moves into a home recently vacated by the Taliban invaders who were kicked out of the village. Elsa's enthusiasm to learn local customs and her friendly caring nature make her quickly popular with those who work at the eighteen bed hospital and many villagers. However, she and feisty Widow Parween especially become BFFs starting with a common pleasure in using lipstick; something banned by the Taliban and a need to help females. The Bostonian also likes Lieutenant Mike Young though fraternizing is taboo. Lipstick in Afghanistan is a terrific insightful character study of an American diligently working in a remote Afghan village. The two best friends are wonderful fully developed protagonists as they risk their lives to improve the lot of others. Although the romance with Mike seems a bit forced though well written and does raise questions of how far must you depart from your culture when you are a guest of another nation in which promiscuous behavior is unacceptable. Still fans will enjoy this discerning look at a dedicated Massachusetts nurse providing health care and more in a remote rural part of Afghanistan. Harriet Klausner