cover image Persian Brides

Persian Brides

Dorit Rabinyan. George Braziller, $22.5 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-8076-1430-3

It may be true, as Tolstoy wrote, that all happy families resemble one another, but it would be next to impossible to find a family anything like the Ratoryans, the 19th-century Jewish clan engagingly depicted in this first novel--or a writer who could conjure them up more vividly than Israeli journalist Rabinyan. The members of this passionate, superstitious family inhabit a traditional Persian village where, for women, marriage and childbirth are paramount and the news that a girl has begun menstruating is disseminated by carrier pigeon. Flora--voluptuous, adorable, foolish and very pregnant at 15--casts spells every day and sings magic songs every night until her voice grows hoarse, hoping to bring her errant husband, a wayward cloth merchant, back to her. Downstairs, her 11-year-old cousin Nazie dreams of marrying Flora's brother. Episodic but not merely pastoral, the novel tells one poignant, bewitching story after another, seducing us with vivid language and outrageous tales of deception, devotion and magic. Rabinyan crams every page with evocative details: Flora spending the three days before her wedding delousing her fiance's scalp; a woman smearing her husband's glasses with a thin layer of goat's butter to keep him from discovering her ugliness; a cloth merchant who can't fall asleep without rubbing fabric between his fingers. Rabinyan's brisk, fetching prose expertly summons a long-vanished land and renders it dazzling and delicious. (Feb.)