A Mirror Garden
By: Monir Farmanfarmaian and Zara Houshmand
A Mirror Garden is the memoir of an Iranian-American woman who
has witnessed much of the events of the last century. Monir Shahroody,
now a senior citizen living in New York, has seen it all and, with some
help from her co-author Zara Houshmand, shares some of those memories
As the world steps away from fantasy and dream, the fascination with
true events has caused a profound shift to realism in literature, art,
and entertainment. Gone are the days of classic literature where a
writer had to fabricate a story. Today, fiction seems to have lost its
appeal and the publishing market, responding to public demand, is
leaning more toward memoirs and fact-based stories.
American readers have always been fascinated by the conflicts and
struggles that surround new immigrants, but until recent years, there
were few stories concerning the Iranians. Following the Islamic
revolution and the great exodus of many Iranian intellectuals, an
overwhelming number of Persian writers have switched to other languages
thus presenting their unique stories to a much broader readership.
Understandably, most of these writers have a nostalgic voice and few
succeed to tell their tale without sounding self-absorbed. A Mirror Garden
may well be among the few exceptions. This in part comes from the fact
that at no point Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian expresses remorse and
lacks self-pity in her voice. The effortless manner in which she speaks
of a time and place that no longer exist comes across as refreshing.
Monir’s story takes us back to the Iran of eighty years ago. She comes
from a rather conservative family. Her grandfather is an ayatollah, her
father a member of the shah’s parliament. One can only imagine the
rigid rules that must have surrounded a girl from the small town of
Qazvin back in the 1920’s. But thanks to her free spirit and the
support she receives from those around her, there is no stopping her.
Breaking many rules back when rules could not even be bent, Monir goes
abroad, studies art, bares a child, and, after surviving a divorce,
finds true love.
Although some critics have called this a love story, it is rather a
chronicle of a variety of events where “love” does not make it to the
top of the list. A Mirror Garden is more about the struggles of an
artist who is trying to bring East and West together inside a frame.
Her inspiring story is about the formidable hardships the Iranian women
have endured as it’s a review of the drastic changes in Iran over
nearly a century. Her account of facts comes across as honest and true,
but written by another, so the drama of the story sounds somewhat
diluted. At the same time, the distance this creates seems to make a
few unusual events even more believable.
Zara Houshmand has indeed done the story justice and, although at times
she may be emotionally removed, her eloquent style pulls the reader in.
The only time we experience the narrator’s heart-breaking sorrow is in
regard to her husband’s terminal illness. Here, she grieves for him and
yet tries not to show it. “I sat nearby and worked on drawings,
pointillist sketches of flowers. Each dot I placed on the paper was a
mark of foreboding, a surrogate tear.”
Among Iranians, the name Farmanfarmaiian carries a certain weight,
however, Monir does not need her husband’s clout to be noticed. Her
incredible courage as well as her achievements as an art collector who
is set to save what is left of folk art in Iran is enough to make her
special. This feisty character could have been Monir Shahroody-Anybody
without diminishing the dynamic of her intriguing story.
On the chapters that follow her second marriage, the tender affection
and subtle support she receives from her man provide a scenic backdrop
to the tableaux of her life. Farmanfarmaian’s understanding of Monir’s
drive for the arts is beyond charming. His character alone makes the
book more interesting, it’s as if he becomes the mirror to help the
reader see Monir from a favorable angle without her sounding conceited.
Such a tender care is not a common trait among Middle Eastern men. Then
again, there had to be an unusual mate for such an unusual lady.