title: A Small Fortune [support an independent bookseller and purchase at Strand]
author: Rosie Dastgir
source: I received an advanced reader’s copy from Riverhead Books via
LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.
Real talk: I’ve been putting off writing this review of Rosie Dastgir’s A Small Fortune because, honestly, I had a really hard time finishing it. Not because the text was complex or emotionally taxing…just the opposite, actually. The writing itself was a bit wonky and the tone of the piece was fairly static. A lot happens in the story, but due to what came across to me as issues with character development, the narrative didn’t seem to progress anywhere that felt realistic.
Premise: (from the back jacket) Harris, the presumed patriarch of his large family–both in England, where he’s made his home, and in Pakistan, where he was raised–has unexpectedly received a “small fortune” from his divorce settlement with an Englishwoman: £53,000. As a devout Muslim, Harris views this sum as a “burden of riches”; all he can think upon receiving it, if of how best to divest himself of it. But deciding which deserving relatives to give it to proves to be a burden of its own.
Here’s where I feel Dastgir went astray…
Characterization: Real people can be incredibly complex in terms of personality. Sometimes, you can know someone a lifetime and still be surprised by their decisions and contradictions. It’s the very nature of choice that gives humans the leeway to be hypocritical. But in a novel, I don’t have the luxury of knowing your characters for a lifetime; I get 373 pages. The central character of Harris was particularly inconsistent, which stood in the way of my being able to empathize with his choices and decisions throughout the story. Personally, even if I can’t fully get behind the choices of a character, as a reader, I want to be able to know enough about them that I can understand where each decision came from. With Harris, I feel like I’d learn one thing about him and then he would do something that seemed to completely contradict what I had just been told. He’s supposed to be very traditional when it comes to his Islamic culture, yet he changes his name from Haaris to Harris when he moves to England. He’s upset with his daughter having a live-in English boyfriend, yet he engages in a sexual relationship with a widow he meets through family members. He’s constantly in need of money, but when he receives a settlement from his ex-wife, he gives it away (!!!) to a cousin who he seems to look down upon, not to his family back in Pakistan. I felt myself asking “where did that come from???” over and over again and not finding that question answered by the text. So my thinking is this: 1) Harris is one of those people who makes whatever decision benefits him or paints him in the best light in the moment, and spends his time thereafter justifying his actions…someone who has an incredibly difficult time seeing the world from any other perspective than his own in the immediate present. But I can’t imagine that an author would sit down and create a main character so dense and inconsistent that it renders him this difficult to get behind, so it leads me to think 2) that the problem might be that her writing process was…
Action rather than character driven: The book reads like Dastgir had decided what was going to happen in the story and then made the characters behave as needed to move the plot along, which resulted in the inconsistent characterization. This inconsistency made her characters less believable to me, and the farther I progressed through the narrative, the less and less I bought in to the action. And the way the book was concluded…everything was tied up far too quickly and a bit too neatly…coupled with the disjointed characters, this made it seem less and less real.
Focus: What was this book ABOUT? And WHO was it about? Too many things are touched upon but nothing is really investigated or discussed, if that makes sense. The entirety of the discussion of radical Islam seems fairly surface, when that’s such a complex and rich issue to delve into. Most of the chapters focused on Harris, but then we’d get a few that focused on Alia (his daughter) or on Rashid (his nephew)…and their treatment felt very surface. My metaphor for characterization: If characters are plants, mediocre authors only deal with what the sun shines on. Great authors take on the soil and the roots. I want to see some sediment when I read. And I feel like Dastgir only got as far as the grass line and stopped. Whose story was this? I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to walk away thinking or feeling.
Dastgir has the foundation to be a skilled writer (there were absolutely some gorgeous moments, mostly in description of setting), but this absolutely feels like a debut novel. I think with the right mentor or writing group or maybe just with time, she has what it takes to be a successful novelist. I’d be willing to read her again, but I’m going to wait until she’s written a few more books.
Rubric rating: 4.5