A Whole New World
THE RUG MERCHANT
By Meg Mullins
Viking. 258 pp. $23.95
Any matchmaker will tell you: Opposites attract. In Meg Mullins's sensitive but flawed debut novel, The Rug Merchant , opposites form bonds of love and friendship that are as powerful as they are short-lived.
Ushman Khan, the title character, is an Iranian businessman who's recently immigrated to America to set up shop on Madison Avenue, leaving behind his wife, Farak. His business gets a huge boost from a major client, an Upper East Side socialite named Mrs. Roberts, who commissions Ushman to cover all the floors of her new apartment in Persian rugs. Mrs. Roberts is fickle and demanding, but she is also caring and genuine. She worries about Ushman's loneliness and reaches out to him during a moment of acute sadness. And Ushman, too, gives her emotional support during her husband's illness. Based on a mix of empathy and pragmaticism, the relationship between Ushman and Mrs. Roberts is both unusual and believable.
Ushman would like to bring Farak to the States, but she resists: She has taken up with a Turkish merchant and files for divorce. Devastated, Ushman wanders into Kennedy Airport, watching couples meet, as though witnessing their reunions could somehow bring about the one he wishes for. There he meets Stella, a 19-year-old student at Barnard, who has just said goodbye to her parents. She is young, smart, funny, beautiful, and Ushman finds it nearly impossible to believe that she would be interested in him. But an incident in Stella's life propels her into his store one day, and the two begin an improbable affair. Like the sun and the moon, which are in eclipse when they become lovers, Ushman and Stella belong to different worlds. And they remain that way; Stella, as a character, is far too perfect, far too one-dimensional to really engage the reader.
Narrated in the present tense, from Ushman's point of view, The Rug Merchant moves along at a deliberately slow pace, allowing Mullins to explore the effects of loss, whether real or potential, upon her characters. Farak's infidelity is particularly painful for Ushman, for it represents a betrayal of her womb as much as of her heart: She is pregnant by her lover and well past her first trimester, while all five of her pregnancies by Ushman ended in miscarriage. Meanwhile, Mrs. Roberts's husband is bedridden, in the throes of a never-revealed but terminal disease, and so she, too, must live with the constant threat of loss.
The Rug Merchant is meant to be a meditation on how relationships between people can both transcend and be hampered by culture and class. Mrs. Roberts can appreciate the preciousness of an Ardabil rug, but she also requires Ushman to tell her exotic stories about his homeland or about himself before she buys them from him. When Ushman shows her a Ghiordes rug, she asks that he demonstrate Muslim prayer for her. "Without understanding its purpose, Ushman feels that her request must be some form of subjugation. Some reminder of his relation to her and her country."
Likewise, Ushman's relationship with Stella is at once tender and tense. He spends a great deal of his time marveling at her mix of innocence and confidence -- the latter of which he views as a direct consequence of her Americanness. When he catches a glimpse of her with a male student, he thinks that the "blond boy" is a better match for her. "Anyone would be." This feeling that he doesn't quite measure up is keenly apparent even in moments of shared intimacy.
The Rug Merchant is based on a short story by the same name that appeared in the Iowa Review and was later anthologized in Best American Short Stories (2002). The delicate, subtle style that highlighted that work can frequently be found in the novel. But the long form also reveals shortcomings in the consistency of the narrator's voice. In addition, Mullins appears to have trouble creating full lives for her characters. Although we hear that Ushman has a successful business, we never see him interact with any clients except Mrs. Roberts. He never chats with a neighbor, doesn't meet any friends, doesn't have any employees. Indeed, the only relationships he appears to have are those that serve the plot.
The Rug Merchant chronicles one man's relationship with two very different women -- one a friend, the other a lover. The more successful rendering is the least romantic. Ushman's friendship with Mrs. Roberts reveals a darker and affecting side to both of them, a touch that remains missing from the love affair with Stella. This imbalance makes the world that Mullins has created engaging, but not fully rewarding. ·
Laila Lalami is the author of "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits." She is also the editor of the culture blog Moorishgirl.com.