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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Pistachio Seller

Reem Bassiouney

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Title: The Pistachio Seller
Author: Reem Bassiouney
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 160 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Pistachio Seller - US
The Pistachio Seller - UK
The Pistachio Seller - Canada
The Pistachio Seller - India
  • Arabic title: بائع الفستق
  • Translated by Osman Nusair

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Our Assessment:

B- : appealing bits, but jumbled and sometimes clumsy presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 14/9/2009 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Though sentimental in places and melodramatic in others, this story of self-discovery and the trials of love is delivered with warmth and humor." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Pistachio Seller is a love story. The dominant voice is that of Wafaa, who narrates much of the story -- but parts are also presented in the third person, and from different perspectives. The novel covers some thirteen years, circling from a brief introductory scene in 1993 back to 1980 and then making its way back to 1993.
       In 1980 Wafaa is twenty years old. Her British-educated cousin, Ashraf, who has barely ever been to Egypt, comes to work for a bank here on a one-year assignment, and her family is eager to marry her off to him.
       A devout soul, she's sure that:

No more than a few minutes had passed before he had decided that I was a model of backwardness and ignorance.
       Ashraf toys a bit with her -- "I may be trying to shatter her rigidity, her obsolete traditions" -- , but hooks up with the journalist Lubna, who isn't quite as concerned about maintaining her "honor"; Wafaa claims it doesn't bother her much: "I could not be made to feel jealous of a prostitute".
       Wafaa's younger sister, Sally, is a freer spirit, too, more willing and eager to give in to love, about which Wafaa has serious misgivings. But few people seem to be able to live up to the local code of conduct -- not even Wafaa's mother.
       Wafaa clings to her beliefs, but at least mulls things over (for more than a decade ...), while Ashraf remains close enough to be a constant temptation. Even when he goes abroad again she can't get him out of her mind.
       There are quite a few upsetting events in the novel, but the focus is not always closely on them. Sally's life over the years is barely touched upon, though her fate is an interesting one, and Ashraf's disastrous experiences abroad (he has to flee England and winds up in America (where he also runs into Lubna at one point)) are relatively summarily related. With very occasional letters and telephone calls between Wafaa and Ashraf when they are separated by such enormous distances, Bassiouney seems undecided about making the long period one heartbroken blur, or filling in the details.
       Ashraf observes:
But in Egypt, every move has a meaning. Every look has a meaning. We love details. Isn't that so, Wafaa ?
       But Bassiouney tries too hard to have it both way, to present those meaningful looks and moves as well as something with a far more sweeping arc, throwing in politics and social criticism (Lubna is an ardent reformist, her brother a drug-addicted layabout). It's much the same with the symbolic pistachios -- a rare luxury at the time that Ashraf likes to munch on and offer, showing him to be the arrogant and pampered foreign-raised boy who is not attuned to the difficult local situation: a fine idea that feels much too forced here.
       The novel clearly also suffers some in translation: the different perspectives, especially, must work better in the original than they do in English. Less excusable is some of the writing itself: yes, this is a novel that actually contains sentences such as:
His love for her was like the Olympic torch, hot and burning.
       (One hopes that in the original it was at least the Olympic flame that was meant (since that suggests a never-extinguished fire ...), but even so, there's no reason whatsoever for anything Olympian here (a simpler flame would serve just as well), and certainly no reason for any sort of torch -- and "hot and burning" ? that's just lame.)
       Bassiouney shows some talent: the individual fates she juggles are often interesting (but too often the interesting ones are left too peripheral), and some of the writing works quite well. As is -- at least in the English version --, however, The Pistachio Seller is rather underwhelming, both as a love story and a story of near-contemporary Egyptian conditions.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 February 2010

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The Pistachio Seller: Reviews: Reem Bassiouney: Other books by Reem Bassiouney under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Reem Bassiouney (ريم بسيوني) was born in Egypt in 1973. She currently teaches at the American University in Cairo.

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