This novel is set in Washington DC in 2015 or 2016, mainly in a new housing development called Azalea Heights. People are moving there intending to make fresh starts. There is an emphasis on newness, of the houses, the yards, and the neighbourhood. The characters include several immigrants from south Asia—some from India and others from Pakistan, as well as two white couples.
Naina is a recently divorced woman, originally from India, with a young son and a mother whose memory is failing. Gerard is recently retired from the US armed forces after being involved in the Iraq war; he has PTSD. The other white couple’s child drowned in their swimming pool; Kate is not dealing well with that. Altaf’s family is originally from Pakistan. His marriage is moribund and his son Zain is being radicalized by a cleric at the local mosque. Rohan is also from India, working hard to establish a restaurant. He is attracted to Naina.
Racial prejudice and religious extremism contribute to the plot. The characters are mostly realistic and fairly sympathetic. They are all dealing with life challenges of one sort or another—divorce, PTSD, grief, business challenges, the demands of parents, the troubles of children.
At times I thought there were too many characters; I found myself forgetting who was related to whom. The main characters—Naina, Rohan, and Altaf—are distinct and memorable. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the shifts from one to another are clear and not confusing.
The author is clearly familiar with south Asian culture and the immigrant experience and shows them vividly, occasionally including words and short phrases in Hindi and Urdu. I particularly enjoyed descriptions of Indian food and cooking.
In the first part of the book, each chapter presents one of the main characters and their situations. The pace is steady and the story at that point is mildly intriguing. Eventually, the characters’ lives begin to impinge on one another, in ways that are both hopeful and concerning. Tension definitely increases when a teenager goes missing. I found myself formulating a quite macabre explanation for this event, but at risk of spoilers, will say no more.
The book is realistic and includes descriptions of sexual situations. I thought one of them was unnecessarily detailed, considering its importance to the plot. Another was something of a surprise.
Once the story reaches a crisis point, tension is maintained and the book becomes a page-turner. The climax and resolution show both negative and positive aspects of American life as people overcome a variety of challenges and work together. The ending is both heartwarming and heart-wrenching.
I recommend this book to readers as a look into the lives of immigrants to the US and a different view of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.
This review is based on an advance copy provided by the author.
Azalea Heights release date: October 26th