For priding ourselves on being so advanced in comparison to what we view as outdated ways of love -- arranged marriage and traditional housewives -- there's a lot of discontent.
When a first book stays with you, as Ann Marlowe's How to Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z did, it's difficult not to judge the second on the precedent it set. How to Stop Time recounts Marlowe's life as an East Village music critic and functional heroin addict in the mid-1990s. As a Harvard grad with her MBA from Columbia, Marlowe is about the last person you'd expect to ditch her intellectual trappings for late nights with musicians, copping dope. It's an intelligent, honest, and unsentimental portrait. The quality of Marlowe's writing hasn't changed in The Book of Trouble -- her sentences still overflow with crisp images and thoughtful analysis, seamlessly drawing you into her world. But the subject matter has, and in fact, the book is a dim star in comparison. It still shines, mind you, but its execution is rougher and its focus not as sharp.
Still smart, perceptive, and a well-equipped guide, Marlowe contrasts the Islamic culture of Afghanistan and Iraq with mainstream American culture in terms of marriage, family, and more specifically, love. When Marlowe visits Mazar-I-Sharif and stays with the extended family of her traveling companion, Najib, she notices an intimacy between family members that was absent in her own family, growing up as the oldest of two children in New Jersey. And likewise, she finds it easier to feel affection for the children, especially Loulou, the youngest child, who she wants to take under her wing. Marlowe's personal life, in general, is not grounded in emotional connections; in fact, quite the opposite. She admits, "It was hard for me to think of any living being that I related to mainly on an emotional level, for whom my tenderness wasn't based on admiration and a conversational connection." And so this window into the daily life of an Afghan family, where warmth and kindness are dispensed in large helpings, is an awakening for her.
The trouble then, both with the book and for Marlowe, is Marlowe's segue into this comparison of cultures: a doomed love affair with Amir, an Afghan man 10 years her junior. This becomes the overarching narrative for the book. Amir is the first man in years that Marlowe has opened herself up to, not just physically -- she's had no dearth of sexual connection -- but intimately, by putting herself emotionally on the line. She is in her mid-40s, unmarried and childless, and so the stakes are high. For one, she would like to have a baby while she still can: at one point she suggests they marry so that Amir can get his green card and travel freely to Afghanistan, that is, if he promises to impregnate her.
Amir, though, is a man of contradictions, caught up in the ideals of his native culture while living a rather assimilated life in the States. He plans to marry a 17-year-old Afghan virgin, and refuses to speak to his brother because he married an Iranian, yet he drinks heavily and sleeps not only with Ann, but also, before her, with her Persian tutor, Shirin, who he stops pursuing because she's too old (she's younger than Ann) and has Iranian ancestry. These warning signs go unheeded; there's a gruffness and complimentary tenderness about Amir that Ann cannot dismiss. Still, to the reader, there's never any question how this will end: you are set up for the fall, for Ann's heart to slowly break in front of you.
But while Ann's relationship with Amir may be at times tenuous and trying, the questions it raises and the ideas she explores because of it are the nuggets worth reading for. For example, what is the cause of her disconnect in relationships, and in American relationships in general? For priding ourselves on being so advanced in comparison to what we view as outdated ways of love -- arranged marriage and traditional housewives -- there's a lot of discontent. Perhaps there's more satisfaction involved in the older traditions than we Westerners are willing to acknowledge. For one, Marlowe sites that Afghan society is matriarchal within the home, and patriarchal in the outside world. She in no way excuses the negative repercussions this has had, such as the former Taliban ban on educating women. But what she illuminates is our own misconceptions.
Marlowe suggests that the West has developed a misguided idea of love: "Relationships are part of the intellectualization of love that has crept into our culture. Relationships take root in the mind, love in the body. We choose relationships, but we fall in love ... A relationship between a man and a woman -- often called a sexual relationship just to make everything clear -- is meant to be a rational undertaking." She knows this because it's all too familiar. A strong, independent, and fiercely intelligent woman, she confesses that she only recently learned that steeling her heart is not a sign of strength, that the stronger person opens her heart to love. Marlowe can meet a man, take him home, and sleep with him, no problem, but to take risks, to fall in love, she finds far more difficult.
For all of the toughness and rigidity of Afghanistan's political and religious structures, Marlowe finds the culture sentimental and the families tight-knit. She posits that this is precisely what allows Amir to exhibit his seemingly contradictory machismo and vulnerability. "Now I see that the two seemingly opposite poles of his personality make each other possible. The man I loved in bed was so open and poetic and tender in private, precisely because he was defensive, suspicious, and hard in the outside world. Like their cultures, people must be taken whole." But Marlowe hasn't until this point taken Amir whole; she has willingly neglected his coarser side that has pushed her away.
For Marlowe, Afghan culture offers an emotional closeness that she yearns for yet which escapes her. Perhaps this, in part, explains her infatuation with Amir: he represents the possibility of finding love and intimacy, and still believes in the strength of a marriage, even if it is to someone younger and far more innocent. What she fails to see is how Amir's idealism of Afghan culture always excluded her as a serious romantic possibility. And likewise, the well-traveled, opinionated Ann would never have dismissed her career and become the devoted housewife had she been given the opportunity. The material of the heart is too close and, despite the strength of her ardor, too weak to support the weight of the book. It's a daring move for someone so accustomed to emotional distance to write her failed love into a book, and yet this is where it falters.