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.
|Sold by:||SIMON & SCHUSTER|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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.
© 2010 Roberta Gately
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Lipstick in Afghanistan includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Roberta Gately. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Elsa Murphy is a serious, sweet Boston girl whose tough childhood made her want nothing more than to truly help people. After working tirelessly to finish nursing school and sweating through long hours in the ER, she decides to volunteer with Aide du Monde, a world relief organization. Elsa feels it’s the best way to put her nursing skills to use, and she secretly longs to leave Boston and add some color to her life. But she has no idea what to expect when she is posted to a rural clinic in Afghanistan, just after 9/11.
From the moment she sets foot in Bamiyan, Elsa knows her life will forever be changed by what she sees and who she befriends. There’s spirited Parween, a young mother who’s been forced to silently accept the horrors the Taliban inflicted on her family and friends, but who longs to throw off her veil and fight back. And there’s Mike, a handsome engineer in the U.S. Special Forces who teaches Elsa what it truly means to love. But when an innocent venture to a nearby town puts them in grave danger from a Taliban guerrilla unit, Elsa and her friends must fight for their lives—and Elsa discovers the real power that comes from friendship, and the strength she never knew she had.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Throughout the novel, Elsa is somewhat naïve in her motivations and expectations. Do you see this as a positive or negative quality? Do you think that her naïveté is what really allowed her to embrace Bamiyan and be less of an “outsider,” or do you think it has blinded her to the constant danger of her situation, making her reckless when she ought to have been careful?
2. Elsa says to Mike, “If you’re still coming to dinner tonight—and I hope you are—you’ll see my Afghanistan. Good friends and gentle people” (p. 194). Do you agree that even under such volatile circumstances, there can be such a dichotomy of views? That a soldier could never look at the place and people around him the same way a nurse or aid worker could, and that even though they’re physically in the same location, their experiences are vastly different?
3. The story is narrated in third-person limited: that is, we see through the experiences of Elsa, and at times, through the experiences of Parween. Why do you think the author chose to write it this way? Was there another character that you wished to see at the center of the narration?
4. What did you think about Elsa’s relationship with Mike? Do you think it would have progressed so quickly had they met under different circumstances? Do you think that being in Bamiyan gives Elsa a kind of courage that the Boston Elsa would never have had? Do you think the fact that they both sought familiarity in a foreign land (and found it in each other) made for a deeper relationship, or is that a superficial (albeit passionate) connection that might not last in a place like Boston?
5. Before the encounter with the Taliban guerrillas, Elsa tells Mike of her plans to go “to Rwanda, or, well . . . anywhere they need us” (p. 226). Do you think she will follow through on that plan after all that has happened, perhaps by joining the UN? Do you think she feels she owes it to Parween to continue to help people?
Do you feel Aide du Monde’s decision to have her replaced was warranted?
6. Lipstick in Afghanistan has many strong female characters. Think about all the different women who impact on Elsa’s life: Margaret, Maureen, Parween, Amina, Rahima, and Laila. What does Elsa learn from each of these women at various points of the novel? What do you think they learn from her? Think about the women who play a significant role in your life. What can you learn from them?
7. To a great extent, the male characters in the novel are quite clearly good (Uncle Abdullah, Mike, Hamid, Raziq) or evil (Mariam’s husband, the members of the Taliban, Noor Mohammed). How did you feel about the portrayal of men? Did you find it accurate, or too simple? What about the fact that men were shown as both victims and perpetrators of crimes, while women were almost solely victims?
8. When Elsa tells Parween that she is angry at Mike for saying that he’d shoot Hamid if he had to, Parween’s reaction surprises her. Parween says, “Things are not always as complicated as you make them, Elsa. You are like a tree—strong, yes—but rigid. Too rigid. . . . When you see Mike—and you will—ask him if he’d save Hamid. That is the only thing you need to know” (p. 203). Do you agree with Parween’s and Mike’s point of view? Or do you feel that Elsa is right to try and see the complexity of the situation—to want to always judge people on an individual basis, as impossible as it may be?
9. Parween willingly risks everything when she jumps from the tree and attempts to surprise the Taliban members from behind. What do you think of her decision? Do you think it was selfish—that she should have considered her mother and her daughter and the life they’d have without her before risking her life? Or do you think it was selfless—that her risk was a way to try and ensure a better future for her daughter, and for all women?
10. The story of the lady rebel is very significant throughout the novel. What do you think the legend symbolizes? What did you think about the fact that Parween, through her death, becomes the embodiment of the legend? How else does the idea of rebellion manifest through the book?
11. Do you think karma and/or fate play significant roles in the story? Support your answer with examples from the text.
12. Were you left with a sense of hope at the end of the novel— that things would be better for the women in Bamiyan (and also Elsa), or was there a lingering feeling of futility? Do the themes in this fictional account relate at all to your real world perspectives on war and change?
13. The title of the book is Lipstick in Afghanistan. Discuss the significance of lipstick to the women in the novel. What does it mean to Elsa? To Parween and Mariam? If you had to pick one overarching idea or theme for it to symbolize, what would it be?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Do you have an item that is to you what lipstick is for Elsa? Something you could never travel to a foreign country without? Have each member bring her “lipstick” to the book club and discuss.
2. The Hazaras are a real tribe in Afghanistan. Do some research on their culture and way of life, and have each member present an interesting fact.
3. Visit the International Rescue Committee’s website at www.theirc.org to see how you can help the people of Afghanistan or the millions of other refugees around the world.
A Conversation with Roberta Gately
What inspired you to write Lipstick in Afghanistan? Did you pull from many of your real-life experiences? What made you decide to write a work of fiction as opposed to a nonfiction account or memoir?
My inspiration came from the people of Afghanistan, whose stories and struggles, though the stuff of legend, often stay hidden in dusty villages and timeworn towns. I wanted to share the stories of the bent old woman who was likely starving, but who gave me a handful of chickpeas so that I might know that Afghans were generous; of the tiny girl who pummeled every boy in the village just because she
could; and of the shy young woman who dreamed of going to Kabul as a legislator. Their stories are endless, their courage infinite despite Afghanistan’s seemingly unending history of tragedy heaped upon tragedy. And ultimately, it is the women I hoped to unveil so that the reader might get an authentic glimpse into the lives and struggles of the women and girls and even the men of Afghanistan. Although I chose fiction for this story, I have written a memoir— From Africa to Afghanistan: A Nurse’s Story —and hope someday to publish it as well.
You really transport the reader to the remote climes of Bamiyan, evoking the village atmosphere in rich detail. How much time did you spend in Afghanistan? What did you take away from your time there?
I’ve been involved in aid work on and off for several years, and long before 9/11 I’d made several aid trips to Afghanistan and its environs. In 2002, I spent six months in Bamiyan providing aid both in the village and beyond. My work has provided me a glimpse into their lives, their everyday struggles and their triumphs and failures. I’ve gained a profound respect for the citizens of Afghanistan and a deep appreciation for their traditions and family values. Though on the surface they might seem very dissimilar to us, I found that there was more that connected us than separated us.
Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Do you have a character you identify with most? Are any of the characters in Lipstick based on the people you encountered while in Bamiyan?
This story grew from the fascinating legend of the lady rebel. Is she real or a mythic figure? It’s hard to say with certainty, but much like the people of Bamiyan, I was captivated by the tale. As for my main characters, they are all based, in some measure, on people I’ve met on one or another of my missions to Afghanistan and other spots around the world. Once I created the characters, I felt as though they almost wrote their own stories. Parween’s courage dictated what she would and wouldn’t do, what roads she would choose. Elsa’s shyness hindered her until she gained her professional footing—and a firm friend in Parween. Mike was always a soldier—it just took Elsa time to see that.
You write about some truly horrific situations—for example, Mariam’s exploitative marriage and eventual rape at the hands of the Taliban, and Meena’s abuse at the hands of a village lord. What made you choose to include these topics? Are they based on true events, perhaps even ones you encountered firsthand?
Although not based on actual situations I witnessed, they are drawn from bits and pieces of stories I’ve heard. Though terribly disturbing, they serve to illustrate the incredible resilience of Afghanistan’s women, who rise above adversity again and again. In both Meena’s and Mariam’s stories, it is the women who band together and defy not just their traditional roles but the potential explosive wrath of their society. These stories screamed to be told—so that women everywhere might understand the heartbreaking decisions that the women of Afghanistan face on a regular basis.
A point of contention in Mike and Elsa’s relationship is that they have somewhat opposing views of the place they’re in, because their roles and expectations are so different. Is that something you have found to be true in your experience?
Although I’ve met soldiers in many of the war-torn places I’ve been, I can’t really answer that—expectations are based on perceptions, and with soldiers and aid workers alike the diversity of viewpoints is almost never what I expect.
As an aid worker, do you think Elsa behaves somewhat recklessly while in Afghanistan, especially when agreeing to go with Parween to Sattar? Or do you think it’s difficult to judge such a situation until you’ve actually been there?
By the time Elsa accompanies Parween to Mashaal, she has been incountry
for six months. She has already skirted danger by banding with the women to offer refuge to Meena and traveled secretly to Mashaal, both acts fueling her fledgling sense of self-esteem. Despite the confrontation on the clinic road with the surly young group of Taliban, she is confident that she can handle herself. She has grown accustomed to Bamiyan and has been accepted into the village. Elsa’s decision to accompany Parween was only reckless in hindsight.
How do you see the story playing out? Do you think Elsa and Mike are meant to be together? Do you see Elsa joining the UN and continuing on in her aid work?
I am not sure how it will play out. Perhaps that is best left for the reader to decide.
Do you have plans to write another novel? Would you return to Elsa and this cast of characters, or focus on something entirely new?
I am working on a second novel. Based in Africa and tentatively titled The Bracelet, it is the story of a young aid worker who may have witnessed or perhaps only dreamed that she witnessed a murder in Geneva while en route to her posting in Africa. I would definitely write a sequel to Lipstick. I too am curious to see how Elsa and Mike play out!
Who are your writing influences and what are you currently reading?
Almost impossible to pinpoint all the writers who have influenced me, and they are an eclectic group. Early on it was Harper Lee, D. H. Lawrence, and Marge Piercy; and lately it’s Ann Patchett, Elizabeth George, and Philippa Gregory—all brilliant writers whose novels make me swoon with reader’s delight.
Reading: I just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum—both were spellbinding stories that absorbed me from the first page. The characters and stories were so beautifully written, I still mull over my favorite passages. I’ve just started A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick.
What advice do you have for readers working on their first novels?
Write what you know, an oft-used phrase but the best advice I’ve received.
If you know your story, you’ll write from your heart. Beyond that—persistence, persistence, persistence, and as in everything that matters—hard work.
Does lipstick mean the same thing to you that it does to Elsa?
Oh my, maybe more. I have graduated from lipstick that melted in the heat on my very first aid mission to industrial-strength, all day lipstick that has taken me through sandstorms, roadblocks, and countless dicey situations. When I am away and find that I cannot wash properly or that my sleeping mat is filled with bedbugs, a swipe of lipstick restores my dignity and soothes my soul. And at home, a
tube of lipstick really is magical. It holds more than a waxy bit of color—it holds the promise of a brilliant smile, a brilliant day, both literally and figuratively.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When looking at a magazine photograph of a starving family in Rwanda, young Elsa, living in Boston with her mother and disabled sister, vows to someday become someone who can help the needy people of this world. When she turns seventeen, her life suddenly turns around to follow that track when an ER nurse in a Boston Hospital helps her to understand the circle of life when Elsa¿s baby sister dies. The continuing friendship between Elsa and the nurse blossoms into a mentor relationship, and soon Elsa herself becomes a talented ER nurse assisting with surgical and crisis trauma injuries. When Elsa¿s mother dies in her sleep one night, she suddenly remembers the magazine photo she found fascinating as a child and begins to create a plan to follow her dream of one day helping desperate people.In the wake of 9/11, Elsa volunteers as an overseas Aide nurse, taking up a position in a small village in Afghanistan that will use her nursing skills in their local clinic. Not totally thinking things through in regards to just where she is going and what dangers may lie there, Elsa embarks on the journey of her life as she soon integrates herself in the lives of a village full of kind and loving people. She immerses herself in learning the language and culture with new Afghani friends to help her, and within a short time becomes one with the people of Afghanistan. All is not so rosy though. Elsa has touched down to the world of the Taliban where terror is instilled in the minds of the local people that hover in fear each night as they lay down to sleep. When the Taliban come to Elsa¿s village, she is awakened in shock to the reality and danger she has put herself into. With the help of her new friends and with the assistance of American Soldiers on patrol, Elsa must dig deep into her soul to find her heart and place in a world of war and violence.This is an extraordinary, beautiful, and poignant story of courage and heartache, love and renewal, faith and healing, among simple people who yearn for peace. Within this gem of a novel, you will find tender romance, newfound friends that bond for life, and will learn the ways of the Afghani as they teach Elsa to cook, pray, sew up their injured loved ones and bury their dead. Marriages are arranged, feasts and celebrations abound, babies are born, and brides are adorned with henna and veils. The reader becomes an eyewitness to the glorious kinship between two unlikely women from faraway places that share common ground all based on their love of lipstick! You will laugh, you will learn, you will worry and you will cry, as Roberta takes Elsa into a world unknown that becomes home.All book club discussion groups should bring this to the top of the list for there is much to discuss and share here. For a debut novel, Roberta Gately¿s Lipstick in Afghanistan should easily be climbing the bestseller lists at a rapid pace. Sensational book!
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.
Afghanistan continues to capture our imagination here in this country. It is a world away and so very different. And yet people are people no matter where or how they live. Customs and lifestyles might be different but those are ultimately superficial differences. Certainly there are terrible people like the Taliban, driven to impose their unforgiving and restrictive views on everyone around them regardless of the cost in human terms. But not all Afghanis are Taliban although certainly the vast majority of them have been adversely touched by this zealotry by now.Lipstick in Afghanistan is a novel that shows the resilience and strength of the Afghani people through the eyes of Elsa, an American nurse aid worker whose story intertwines with the local people. Elsa was raised without much but even as a teenager, she wants to give back, horrified, moved, and captivated by photos of war refugees. This drives her to become a nurse as an adult and she works for two years in a Boston ER before being eligible to apply for aid work. She is sent to Afghanistan, to Bamiyan to help out in the hospital. It is there that Elsa comes in close contact with the harsh realities of war, things for which even her time in a busy ER did not prepare her. But she also makes friends and starts to understand local customs, becoming particularly close to Parween, a young, widowed Afghani woman who speaks English thanks to her late husband's teaching. Elsa defies the rules about aid workers and soldiers fraternizing as she meets, befriends, and finally falls in love with an American soldier stationed in Bamiyan also. Despite seeing the fallout of war so closely, Elsa naively believes there to be no further danger, at least not any danger for her despite what her lieutenant tells her.Elsa's underpriviledged upbringing in the States is woven through the narrative of her time in Afghanistan and while this background helps explain her drive to serve, as a plot thread, it really pales in comparison to the lives of the everyday people in Bamiyan, ultimately becoming fairly insignificant. The tragedy and sadness that so many endured and continue to endure pervades the tale of Elsa and Parween's friendship. Elsa and Mike's burgeoning relationship lends a lighter air to the narrative but the speed with which it occurs seems a bit underdeveloped in the plot. Lipstick as a talisman between friends is an interesting concept and combined with it as a small sign of insurrection against the Taliban, it is a powerful symbol.Gately herself spent time working for an aid group in Afghanistan and she has drawn a grittily realistic picture of the devastation and hardship that has followed in the footsteps of war. It is clear that she admired the people she met in the country as her portrayals of her important, named Afghani characters is wholly sympathetic. The writing is at times a little clunky and simplistic but on the whole, this is an engaging story and one that humanizes. Readers looking for more novels set in the Middle East will enjoy this one, as will those in care-giver professions.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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