Roya, a dreamy, idealistic teenager living amid the political upheaval of 1953 Tehran, finds a literary oasis in kindly Mr. Fakhri’s neighborhood stationery shop, stocked with books and pens and bottles of jewel-colored ink.
Then Mr. Fakhri, with a keen instinct for a budding romance, introduces Roya to his other favorite customer—handsome Bahman, who has a burning passion for justice and a love for Rumi’s poetry—and she loses her heart at once. Their romance blossoms, and the little stationery shop remains their favorite place in all of Tehran.
A few short months later, on the eve of their marriage, Roya agrees to meet Bahman at the town square when violence erupts—a result of the coup d’etat that forever changes their country’s future. In the chaos, Bahman never shows. For weeks, Roya tries desperately to contact him, but her efforts are fruitless. With a sorrowful heart, she moves on—to college in California, to another man, to a life in New England—until, more than sixty years later, an accident of fate leads her back to Bahman and offers her a chance to ask him the questions that have haunted her for more than half a century: Why did you leave? Where did you go? How is it that you were able to forget me?
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The Stationery Shop
“I made an appointment to see him.”
She said it as if she were seeing the dentist or a therapist or the pushy refrigerator salesman who had promised her and Walter a lifetime guarantee of cold milk and crisp vegetables and unspoiled cheese if only they would buy this brand-new model.
Walter dried the dishes, his gaze on the kitchen towel and its print of a yellow chick holding an umbrella. He didn’t argue. Walter Archer’s penchant for logic, his ability to let reason trump all, was a testament to Roya’s own good judgment. For hadn’t she married a man who was reasonable and, my goodness, unbelievably understanding? Hadn’t she, in the end, not married that boy, the one she had met so many decades ago in a small stationery shop in Tehran, but lassoed her life instead to this Massachusetts-born pillar of stability? This Walter. Who ate a hard-boiled egg for breakfast almost every single day, who said as he dried the dishes, “If you want to see him, then you should. You’ve been a bit of a wreck, I’m afraid.”
By now Roya Archer was almost American, not just by marriage but by virtue of having been in these United States for over five decades. She could remember a childhood spent in the hot and dusty streets of Tehran, playing tag with her little sister, Zari, but her life now was carefully enclosed in New England.
One visit to one shop a mere week ago—to buy paper clips!—had cracked everything open. Once again she was mired in 1953. Cinema Metropole in the middle of Iran’s largest city that contentious summer. The red circular sofa in the lobby, over which a chandelier’s crystals glistened like corpulent tears, smoke from cigarettes floated in wisps. Up the stairs and into the movie theater he had led her, and there on the screen, stars with foreign names caressed each other. After the film, he had walked with her in the summer twilight. The sky was lavender and layered with shades of purple so varied, they seemed impossible. He had asked her to marry him near the jasmine-soaked bushes. His voice cracked when he said her name. They had exchanged countless love letters, planned their union. But in the end, nothing. Life had pulled out from under her everything that they had planned.
Roya’s mother had always said that our fate is written on our foreheads when we’re born. It can’t be seen, can’t be read, but it’s there in invisible ink all right, and life follows that fate. No matter what.
She had squished that boy out of her mind for decades. She had a life to build, a country to get to know. Walter. A child to raise. That Tehran boy could very well be squeezed to the absolute bottom of the bucket, like a rag useless and worn out and pressed so far down into the depths that after a while he was almost forgotten.
But now she could finally ask him why he had left her there in the middle of the square.
Walter maneuvered the car into the slippery spot narrowed by snowbanks. When they jerked to a stop, Roya couldn’t open the car door. Somehow, during their long drive together, they’d become locked in.
He came around and opened the car door because he was Walter, because he had been raised by a mother (Alice: kind, sweet, smelled of potato salad) who had taught him how to treat a lady. Because he was seventy-seven and couldn’t comprehend why young men today didn’t handle their wives like fragile glass. He helped Roya out of the car and made sure her knitted scarf protected her nose and mouth against the wind. Together they walked carefully across the parking lot and up the steps of the gray building of the Duxton Senior Center.
A burst of overheated air greeted them in the lobby. A young woman, about thirty, her blond hair in a bun, sat behind a desk. A plastic badge with the name CLAIRE was pinned to her chest. Flyers tacked onto a bulletin board behind her desk exclaimed “Movie Night!” and “Bavarian Lunch!” all with exclamation marks, even as the edges of the flyers furled, even as crumpled people in wheelchairs inched their way across the linoleum floor and others pushing walkers steadied themselves so as not to fall.
“Hi there! Joining us for Friday lunch today?” Claire’s voice was loud.
Walter opened his mouth to say something.
“Hello, he won’t,” Roya quickly said. “My husband is going to try the famous faux lobster roll at the Dandelion Deli. I looked it up on the Yelp. So rare to find lobster roll served in the middle of winter, don’t you think? Even if it’s fake.” She was rambling. She was trying so hard not to be nervous. “It was given five stars.”
“That deli?” The receptionist looked surprised.
“Their lobster roll,” Roya mumbled.
Walter sighed. He held up five fingers to indicate to Claire that his wife believed in the five stars.
“Oh, okay! Lobster!” Claire nodded. She pronounced it lobstah. “Have to trust those Yelp reviews!”
“Go on, then,” Roya said gently to her husband. She raised herself on her toes to kiss Walter’s freshly shaven cheek. The crepey skin, his Irish Spring soap scent. She wanted to reassure him.
“Righty-oh.” Walter nodded. “You got it. Off I go, then.” But he didn’t move.
She squeezed his hand, the familiar soft grip of her life.
“Don’t let her get into too much trouble now,” Walter finally said to the receptionist. His voice was strained.
A blast of cold air filled the lobby when Walter walked out the double doors and descended into the icy parking lot.
Roya stood uneasily in front of the desk. She was suddenly overwhelmed by the smell of ammonia and some kind of stew. Beef? Definitely beef with onions. The heat, cranked up to compensate for the New England cold, made the stew smell overpowering. She couldn’t believe she had actually come here. The radiators hissed, wheelchairs squeaked, it all suddenly felt like a terrible mistake.
“And how may I help you?” Claire asked. A gold cross hung around her neck. She looked at Roya with a strange expression, as though she knew her.
“I made an appointment to see someone,” Roya said. “One of your assisted-living patients.”
“Ah, you mean a resident. Great. And who may that be?”
“Mr. Bahman Aslan.” The words came out of Roya’s mouth slowly, like rings of smoke, visible and real. It had been years since she’d said his full name out loud.
The cross on Claire’s neck glinted under the fluorescent lights. Walter would be out of the parking lot by now.
Claire got up and came around the desk to face Roya. She gently took both of Roya’s hands in hers. “It is so nice to finally meet you, Mrs. Archer. I am Claire Becker, the assistant administrator at the Duxton Center. Thank you for coming. I have heard so very much about you. It means a lot to me that you are here.”
So she wasn’t the receptionist—she was an administrator. How did Claire Becker know Roya’s name? It must have been in the appointment book. She had made an appointment, after all. But why did this young woman act like she knew her? And how had she heard so much about her?
“Please come,” Claire said softly. “I’ll take you right to him.” This time she didn’t add the obligatory exclamation mark that seemed necessary for covering up misery around here.
Roya followed Claire down a corridor and into a large hall furnished with a long table and plastic folding chairs arranged on either side. But no one sat at the table playing bingo or gossiping.
Claire pointed to the far end of the room. “He’s been waiting for you.”
By the window sat a man in a wheelchair next to an empty plastic chair. His back was to them; Roya couldn’t see his face. Claire started to approach him, but then she stopped. She cocked her head and took in Roya from head to toe as if measuring her potential for safety, for harm, for drama. Claire fidgeted with her necklace. “Is there anything I can get you? Water? Tea? Coffee?”
“Oh, I’m fine, thank you for asking.”
“Are you sure?”
“You are kind to ask. But no.”
Now it was Claire’s turn to linger. By God, no one wanted to leave Roya alone with this . . . resident. For crying out loud. As if she, a small woman in her seventies, held any kind of power over him or anyone else anymore. As if she, Roya Archer, could torch the place down with her presence, create a blast just by being there.
“I am good,” she said. She’d learned to say that from Americans: I’m good, I’m fine, it’s all okay, okey-dokey. Easy-peasy Americanisms. She knew how to do it. Her heart pounded, but she looked steadily at Claire.
Claire lowered her head and finally turned and walked out. The click-click of her heels as she left the room matched Roya’s extra-loud heartbeat.
She could still follow Claire and leave this smelly place, catch up to Walter before he finished his lunch, go home, climb into bed, and pretend never to have made this strange miscalculation. It wasn’t too late. She imagined Walter hunched over his ginger beer and lobster roll alone at that deli—poor thing. But no. She’d come here to finally find out.
One foot in front of the other, that was how you did it. She forced herself toward the wheelchair by the window. Her heels didn’t click; she had on her trusty gray thick-soled shoes. Walter had insisted that she wear snow boots, but she had refused. She was willing to accept a lot of things, but seeing her old lover for the first time in sixty years while wearing fat Eskimo boots was one of the few things she could not accept.
The man was oblivious to her presence, as if she didn’t exist.
“I’ve been waiting,” a voice suddenly said in Farsi, and Roya’s body buzzed. That voice had both energized and comforted her when they were inseparable.
It was 1953. It was summer. She was seventeen. New England melted away, and the cold outside and the false heat inside evaporated, and Roya’s legs were tanned and toned, and they were standing, she and he, by the barricades, leaning onto the splintered wood, screaming at the top of their lungs. The crowd billowed, the sun burned her scalp, two long braids ended at her breasts, her Peter Pan collar was soaked in sweat. All around them, people pumped their fists and cried as one. Anticipation, the knowing of something new and better about to arrive, the certainty that she would be his in a free, democratic Iran—it was all theirs. They had owned a future and a fate, engaged in a country on the verge of a bold beginning. She had loved him with the force of a blast. It had been impossible to imagine a future in which she didn’t hear his voice every day.
On the linoleum, Roya saw her feet, suddenly unrecognizable to her—in gray little-old-lady shoes with thick soles and tiny bows on top.
The man wheeled his chair around and his face broke into a smile. He looked tired; his lips were dry and deep lines scored his forehead. But his eyes were joyful and filled with hope.
“I’ve been waiting,” he repeated.
Was it possible to slip so easily back? His voice was the same. It was him, all of it, the eyes, the voice, her Bahman.
But then she remembered why she had come. “I see.” Her voice came out much stronger than she’d expected. “But all I’ve wanted to ask you is why on earth didn’t you wait last time?”
She sank into the chair next to him, as tired as she’d ever been in all her years on earth. She was seventy-seven and exhausted. But as she remembered that cruel, disillusioning summer from which she’d never fully recovered, she felt as if she were still seventeen.
Reading Group Guide
This readers group guide for The Stationery Shop includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.
From the award-winning author of Together Tea comes a powerful love story set against the political upheaval of 1953 Tehran. Roya, a dreamy and idealistic teenager, finds a literary oasis in the stationery shop where she meets Bahman, whose burning passion for justice and love of poetry mirror her own. She falls in love at once. But on the eve of their marriage, when they are to meet at the town square, violence suddenly erupts, and in the chaos, Bahman never shows. Roya tries desperately to contact him, but her efforts are fruitless and she resigns herself to never seeing him again. Until, more than sixty years later, a quirk of fate leads her back to Bahman and offers her a chance to ask him the questions that have haunted her for more than half a century.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. The first two chapters show us very different stages in Roya’s life. Discuss the similarities and differences between her life as a married woman in New England and her life as a teenager living in Tehran.
2. On page 3, Roya observes, “For hadn’t she married a man who was reasonable and, my goodness, unbelievably understanding? Hadn’t she, in the end, not married that boy, the one she met so many decades ago in a small stationery shop in Tehran, but lassoed her life instead to this Massachusetts-born pillar of stability?” How are Bahman and Walter different? How are they similar? What do you think Roya was looking for in each of them? How do her expectations for a relationship change throughout the story?
3. On page 56, after discovering Bahman’s mother believes he should marry Shahla, Roya tries to contain her anger: “This was the societal web of niceties and formalities and expected good female behavior that often suffocated her. But she had no choice but to bear it, to try to navigate within it. That much she knew.” Discuss the importance of “saving face” for Iranian women in the 1950s. Do those expectations differ from what was expected of American women? What about women today? Research the cultural expectations of young women in Iran and discuss as a group. How are they similar or different to the expectations you or the women in your life have experienced?
4. Roya and Zari have very different personalities and ways of looking at life, and the two sisters often argue and clash. But there is a bond between them that is unbreakable. Have you experienced that simultaneous closeness and clashing with siblings in your life? What do you think it is about the sibling relationship in general and Roya and Zari’s sisterhood in particular that lends itself to such contradictions?”
5. Throughout the course of her courtship in 1953, Roya experiences passion and longing in new, surprising ways. For example, on page 84, when she watches Jahangir and Bahman dance, she is filled with desire. Compare Roya’s desire as a young woman to Badri’s. Do their social classes influence their actions? What would be the repercussions if Roya acted as Badri did in her youth?
6. Marjan Kamali employs foreshadowing as a plot device in The Stationery Shop. Discuss how it adds to the story and moves the narrative along. How would the novel read without foreshadowing?
7. In the 1950s, women in Tehran weren’t allowed the freedoms, though still limited, that women in America were. How does Roya’s family challenge those social expectations? How does that inform Roya’s life as grown woman?
8. In chapter 14, the readers learn about the history between Mr. Fakhri and Bahman’s mother. After reading this, why do you think Badri treated Roya so terribly?
9. On page 172, Roya struggles with cultural differences in flirting: “Sometimes there didn’t seem to be any rules. It had been far easier in Iran where tradition and tarof who your grandfather was often dictated how to behave.” How do flirting and dating in both Tehran and America challenge Roya and her expectations for relationships? Discuss the differences in how Roya and Zari approach dating. Why do you think Zari feels more comfortable in America than Roya does? Do you think Roya would have had an easier time dating in America if she had never met Bahman?
10. In chapter 18, Bahman reveals the struggles of living with a mentally ill mother in Tehran. Discuss mental illness and its stigma as a group. How was mental illness viewed throughout time, and how does the treatment of the mentally ill vary across cultures? How is the way that Bahman and his father care for his mother countercultural?
11. At the beginning of chapter 19, Roya and Walter go on a double date with Zari and her boyfriend, Jack. Jack offends Roya with the way he speaks about Iran and its food and culture. Do you think Roya is right in feeling offended? Would you have been offended? Discuss cultural ignorance and bias as a group.
12. The characters in The Stationery Shop experience several devastating losses, from love to identity to miscarriage. How do they recover, and how do those losses forever change them? Can your group relate to these sorrows? What losses in your lives have forever changed you?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Before meeting as a group, each member should research the events of the 1953 Iranian coup d'état. Discuss your perceptions of Iran’s relationship with the US before and after learning about the coup. Did this research change what you think about the history of US foreign policy? Why or why not?
2. Marjan Kamali describes the food Roya, Zari, and their mother make in such beautiful detail that you feel like you can taste it through the pages. Have a dinner party where all members cook together and make dishes similar to the ones in The Stationery Shop. Discuss the sensory details of the food you make. Does the food live up to your expectations?
3. The Stationery Shop has many similarities to Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook. In both novels, one set of parents disapproves of and tries to sabotage the relationship. As a group, discuss love in the context of socioeconomic class and the importance of family in choosing a life partner.