Dear Laura," wrote an Albuquerque reader quoted at the beginning of this new novel, "there MUST be a sequel to Veil of Roses. ... I'm 86; please hurry."
And Laura did.
When last we saw Laura Fitzgerald's heroine Tamila Soroush—in Fitzgerald's 2007 debut novel, Veil of Roses—she was on the edge of having to return to her repressive Iranian homeland. Encouraged by her family to try to stay during a three-month visit with her sister in Tucson, Tami has just balked: She could have swallowed her pride and sham-married a wealthy gay Iranian American, but Tami refused to sign a pre-nup that would have ceded to him all control over any children they'd have.
All seemed lost. And it would have been, were it not for handsome, blue-eyed Ike.
The night before Tami was slated to depart (about 10 pages from the end of that first book), Ike—the Starbucks barista she'd secretly fallen in love with—knocked on her door. He dropped to one knee and offered her Happily Ever After.
What "ever after" looks like is what Fitzgerald explores in Dreaming in English. Just as in real life, however, it isn't all "happily."
Dreaming in English opens the day after Tami and Ike have married in a kitschy Las Vegas ceremony. Flying home to Tucson, aglow with affection and talking about dreams, they're blissfully unprepared for what awaits.
First, there are Ike's gregarious, friendly parents. When Ike announces that the new friend he brought to dinner is, in fact, his wife, Mom and Dad Hanson—who warmly welcome all of their children's other friends—turn icily on Tami. "Annulled," "master manipulator" and "immigration-fraud hotline" are not words Tami learned in her English-as-a-second-language class.
Next to threaten Tami and Ike's fragile new union: past relationships. Jenna is the beautiful former girlfriend from hell; Haroun is the spiteful jilted suitor. And then there's the niggling little issue of U.S. Immigration and Naturalization. Their success depends on luck, the kindness of strangers and their inner strength—particularly that of Tami.
A part-time Tucsonan married to an Iranian, Fitzgerald creates a credible cultural and social context. For us locals, it's entertaining to follow Tami through Sam Hughes, across the UA mall and to the Starbucks on University Boulevard ... and to imagine the coffee shop Ike (get it?) dreams of opening in a strip mall on Speedway Boulevard. We picture the differences between Ike's family's Winterhaven red-brick ranch and Tami's sister's El Encanto digs. Their friend Rose's colorful in-town house and garden are a celebration of quirky Tucson.
Sequels often lack the energy and richness of the first in a series, and, unfortunately, Dreaming in English is no exception. For one thing, after the initial dustup with Ike's family, the action in the first part of the book lags: Characters need to be reintroduced, and the momentum seems to stall. For another, while Tami does refer to aspects of political and social oppression in Iran, Fitzgerald doesn't paint into the text as much Persian/Iranian culture as she did in the previous book. That could be explained by the fact that her character is moving on with her life, but it was a strength of Veil of Roses.
Nonetheless, readers who liked Tami, Ike and the others before will like them now. Tami's gutter-mouthed friend Eva is as outrageous and loyal as earlier. (Think décolleté leather and a coal-black wig at an immigration hearing.) And we get to know more about Tami's mother, whose situation in Tehran distantly mirrors Tami's in Tucson.
Once the conflict kicks in, and the plot starts moving, the book also raises some significant questions: What does it mean to be free? What's worth sacrificing for freedom? Where does power lie? What is the nature of faith? Of religion? Personal confidence? What roles do dreams play in one's lives? And what happens if they're thwarted?
Fitzgerald doesn't approach the potentially interesting—but sticky—issues of Muslim-Catholic marriage or the potential for racism in the U.S., but it's not that kind of book. By the time Tami's freedoms are really jeopardized, and her options seem inexorably curtailed, I wasn't putting the novel down. And—just as at the end of Veil of Roses—as I finished Dreaming in English in a public place, I had to surreptitiously dab a couple of Ike's napkins at my eyes.
Yes, reader from Albuquerque—and Fitzgerald's other "wonderful readers," to whom she dedicated the book—you should be glad to see Tamila Soroush back.