This novel is an extraordinary examination of one man’s life in a new country. Ushman Khan, a rug merchant living in Manhattan for three years in anticipation of his wife coming to live with him, learns instead that she is getting a divorce, bearing another man’s child, and moving to Istanbul, leaving his mother in a nursing home in their native Iran.
Without any political agenda, with only the subtleties of cultural disorientation, Khan is simply a transplanted man whose life is suddenly altered, leaving him facing an unknowable and lonely future. His world turned upside down, the very conventional Iranian is adrift in a city of strangers until he meets Stella, a college student. Their meeting is innocent at first, a mutual appreciation and parting of the ways.
After a family tragedy, Stella is drawn to Ushman’s store, and the simple friendship becomes something more despite their differences. These two unlikely people gradually come together, the lovely young woman and the disillusioned man who still struggles with the English language and the easy intimacy of the Americans: “She is from a different world; her trajectory, even momentarily, could never mirror his own.”
For reasons that Ushman cannot begin to fathom, Stella sees him, instinctively drawn to this stranger in a strange land, his honesty and intensity. They begin an awkward dance of mutual discovery, her touch bringing his frozen heart back to life: “This is the first time he has been touched in America.”
The balance between them is tentative, Ushman inhibited by customs as yet unlearned and Stella’s youthful enthusiasm tinged with uncertainty, their differences insignificant for this brief, shining moment. Stella mistakes shame for grief, signaling the cultural divide faced by this couple, but together they rise above the tensions that threaten a new and tenuous romance, forgiveness simple when there is no history to poison their time together.
Undermined by his wife’s indifference and the self-doubt that plagues his relationship with Stella, the unpredictable Ushman is unable to see himself clearly or appreciate his attractiveness to women who yearn for such sensitivity, drawn to his emotional accessibility. “The carpets of Iran, the culture of Islam and the craft of textiles are the landscape of his unhappiness,” yet with Stella, Ushman enters a parallel universe where his past does not intrude on the present, an island of intimacy that heals his soul and brings him unexpected joy.
Transcendently sympathetic, Ushman is a rare jewel in a glass and concrete forest, trapped between anguish and the headiness of new experience, ambushed by unfamiliar feelings, thrust into an intimate relationship with his own heart. The Rug Merchant is an intricate and nuanced love story, written with a delicate, deft touch.