The hardest thing to live up to in a book is the expectations when picking up a sequel to a beloved book. Marsha Mehran’s first book, Pomegranate Soup, was an absolutely perfect combination of magical realism and lush, evocative descriptions of places as well as food. The reader connected with the central characters — the Amnipour sisters Marjan, Bahar and Layla — in ways that were both unexpected and fulfilling. Unfortunately, Rosewater and Soda Bread just doesn’t live up to the expectations of the first book.
The basic elements are all there — Marjan is still cooking, and her sisters Bahar and Layla are still as exotic as ever — but something, a undefined presence, a lack of magic, a more sinister vibe, kept the book from soaring. Bahar was less sad, finding solace in religion — she converts to Catholicism — but in her devotion to a new religion, she becomes intolerant, which is disturbing. Marjan finds love, and in so doing, loses the magic that she had in the previous book; she is often scatterbrained and at loose ends trying to make everything work. She is also trying to face her past — she was in love before, and was arrested during the Iranian Revolution — as well as deal with this stranger that washed up on the beach and that their Italian landlord, Estelle, has taken under her wing. And Layla: all she’s interested in is finding a moment to have sex with her boyfriend. She loses her magic and appeal and becomes an (uninteresting) teenager. The rest of the town, so belovedly quirky before, becomes less friendly and more sinister.
The characters new to the book, however, do provide some needed interest. Julian, Marjan’s love interest, for whom suspicion swings back and forth: is he, or is he not, a cad? And the mysterious girl who washes up on the beach is fascinating, prompting a myriad of questions (Is she a mermaid? How did she get pregnant? Why was she trying to abort the baby? How did she end up on the beach?) as the book unfolds. It’s not until the final third of the book where the story is interesting enough for the reader to really care. Mehran is a better writer than this book suggests; skip this one and just stick with Pomegranate Soup.
Rated: Moderate: they say “feck” a lot, which isn’t nearly as offensive as the f-bomb, even though it means the same thing… somehow swearing in Irish-English is less striking.