Thursday, February 5, 2009

Things I Learned at Book Club

A 1905 publicity shot of Edith Wharton

Ah, sweet, sweet book club. Some call it wine club. In my case, it’s book-conversation-wine-food club, and sometimes we throw some gossip in there. My book ladies are a smart, funny, sassy bunch, and I always look forward to meeting with them.

Last night, we discussed Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” -- the unconventional Countess Olenska, namby-pamby Newland Archer, quietly wily May Archer, and the strictures of the society they all lived in. I’m pretty sure the granny’s weight is a metaphor for how she deals with life – as someone put it, literally living large – but I’m still developing that theory and need to read the book again to really hone it.

Inevitably, we talk about non-book-related things, and last night several of them had to do with other cultures. I was excited to tell one lady from Iran about an upcoming documentary about the last Empress of Iran, Farah, and was treated to a bunch of interesting tidbits.

The Shah had three wives. The first, Fawzia of Egypt, bore him only a daughter, Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi, and was unable to bear more children. No heir, no good, so he divorced her. The second wife, Soraya, was unable to bear children. Again, divorce. His daughter introduced him to his third wife, Farah – they met at the Sorbonne, where they were both studying architecture. Farah bore four children, including the necessary heir, and was a huge champion of Persian architecture, arts and crafts. She currently splits her time between France and the U.S. (the heir lives in exile in Washington, DC).

Going back to the second wife (Soraya) for a moment: The Shah loved her passionately until the day he died. She lived in France following the divorce, and he allocated a very generous stipend for her. Even after the revolution, the revolutionary government kept the stipend going. The Shah used to spend time in France visiting with her, and sent her exquisite gifts.

Later, the subject of maiden versus married names came up. Iranian women take their father’s last name at birth, and they don’t change it when they get married. So a mother and unmarried daughter going through immigration together will stump the officers by having different names.

Another woman, who lived in Belgium for a time, had her maiden name on her Belgian ID card because that’s the legal naming convention for women there. It didn’t match her U.S. passport, which had her married name.

I added that Indian men add their father's first-name initial (or the initial of the town a man is from) to the beginning of their names, e.g., V. Mowgli Patel. This form is used for legal documents, but is generally dropped in everyday life, which can cause confusion in countries such as the U.S., where such naming conventions are unknown and South Indians are sometimes asked to write out their name in full.

And with that, we went back to debating whether Archer Newland was a coward or a victim of the times.


  1. What does Mowgli do while you are book-whine-food clubbing?

  2. This was interesting. Sorry to see the Anonymous snark attack found you. There are some sad souls out there.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.