Parnaz Foroutan’s debut, The Girl from the Garden, explores the fortunes of the Malacoutis, a wealthy Jewish family in Iran at the turn of the 20th century, as remembered by the family’s only surviving daughter, Mahboubeh. Now elderly and living in Los Angeles, Mahboubeh wanders her garden, awash in memories that seem more real than her California home.
In Mahboubeh’s memory, her great aunt Rakhel is a bitter old woman yelling obscenities out of an open window. But she also imagines Rakhel as a very young wife. At a time when a woman’s value was measured by her fertility, Rakhel’s inability to get pregnant was cause for despair. Their infertility (blamed completely on Rakhel) proves torturous to her husband, Asher, and the situation worsens after Rakhel’s sister-in-law gives birth to a healthy boy. When Asher contemplates taking a second wife, Rakhel’s behavior becomes more and more violent.
Foroutan was born in Iran, though she currently lives in Los Angeles, and the stories explored in The Girl from the Garden were inspired by her own family. Though the reader gets a taste of what the Iranian Jewish community was like, this is really a novel about the culture of women, from the ritual baths and other religious traditions to the gardens and distinctly gendered spaces of the home. The novel mimics cinematic techniques in which one scene dissolves into another, shifting seamlessly across decades and continents. We never learn Mahboubeh’s own story, but the sense of a personality forged by the sacrifice, betrayal and restrictions of the women who came before her will remain with the reader long after the book is over.