Stella and Ushman meet on the common ground of pain and abandonment. Ushman’s wife has left him, and Stella’s parents cannot understand how to interact with her now that she is older than six years old. Stella views her parents inability to understand her as a type of abandonment, and the reader wonders if Stella’s interest in Ushman stems out of an attempt to find affection and structure from an adult. Regardless, they are both looking for needs to be filled, but they are generous with each other, too, and their love affair unfolds into something beautiful and true.
Outside of Ushman’s relationship with Stella is Mrs. Roberts, a bored, rich, and voyeuristic middle aged woman. As Ushman desires to be part of Stella’s life, Mrs. Roberts desires to be part of Ushman’s life and culture. She fantasizes about the Muslim faith and the beauty of poverty. As Ushman achieves the American Dream that Mrs. Roberts represents in all of her finery, Mrs. Roberts desires to desire anything. She is glutted with everything and the greatest gift for Mrs. Roberts is anything that is forbidden to her. Mrs.Roberts circles Ushman and Stella, and the resolution is not what you think.
Mullins’ ability to create such a real and complex character in Ushman is a testament to the power of imagination. In a world, where many believe that the best fiction comes from, at least partial, personal experience, Mullins writes about someone completely opposite from her: a Muslim man from Iran. However, Mullins' core belief about humankind suffuses this book with humanity and opportunities to connect with the characters. None of these characters are mainstream; none of them are predictable. Mullins believes that humans are all the same at root, and through empathy, we can understand everyone. This notion is reminiscent of Forster’s epigraph for Howard’s End: “Connect,” and this novel does feel Forsterian in its interest of finding common ground between people of different classes and countries.
Mullins writes in first person, an increasingly popular tense in modern fiction, and the result is an intimate and immediate atmosphere. We feel what the characters feel, and we are able to understand them. The ending of the novel is surprising and ripe with possibilities.
This is a tremendously moving book, a book that plunges the depths of one man’s heart and dreams, and one that ultimately reveals the frail, tenuous, but real ties that connect all of us.
Mullins must put this forward for the Pulitzer.