And the Mountains EchoedAnd the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First, a confession (in the interests of fairness and full disclosure): Khaled Hosseini has attained “untouchable” status in my view—so much so that, as my all-time favorite author, he can do no wrong. When an artist bestows upon me so much pleasure with his unbelievable gift, that shared connection engenders a sort of intimacy and expectancy. We begin to grow together.

Like Hosseini’s first two novels (The Kite Runner; A Thousand Splendid Suns), And the Mountains Echoed delivers unmatched sensitivity, poignancy, and subtlety. Pari is the unifying thread connecting the many subplots flowing throughout this incredible book. Literally wrested from her older sibling’s arms as a toddler and sold to a wealthy Kabul couple, she quickly forgets her early years with her father and brother and grows up in the lap of luxury. Eventually raised in Paris and given every material comfort by a beautiful and manipulative mother—and spared an almost certain, senseless death from the bitter-cold winter in her small Afghan village, Pari retains a gnawing, vague sense that she does not know who she is or her true place in the world. Through Pari, Hosseini poses the first of many unanswerable riddles: Which is more important to a happy and meaningful life—a stable upbringing free from want, or the irreplaceable love of one’s biological family of origin?

Fast-forward fifty years or so, and Hosseini hits us with another impossible moral dilemma: How do we help those facing incredible, tragic, and limitless need in far-flung places when we are so thoroughly mired in (and continually seduced by) our own “first-world” lives of luxury? Dr. Idris Bashiri (who as a child lived across the street from Pari’s adoptive father in Kabul) returns to Afghanistan with his coarse but well-to-do cousin, Timur, to reclaim his father's property (lost during the Russian invasion). Idris is deeply moved when he meets a tragically disfigured young girl living in a Kabul hospital (Roshi was attacked by her axe-wielding madman of an uncle over a petty property dispute). While Idris badly yearns—and genuinely intends—to use his medical connections to help this girl, once he leaves Kabul and returns to his cushy California lifestyle, more pressing (if less important) concerns (a demanding work schedule, a home renovation project) gradually steal his focus: “Talking about Afghanistan—and he is astonished at how quickly and imperceptibly this has happened—suddenly feels like discussing a recently watched, emotionally drenching film whose effects are beginning to wane.”

Meanwhile, cousin Timur (a bawdy, womanizing real estate investor who cheats on both his wife and his taxes) swoops in to play the hero and snatch the glory. Through these two opposing characters, Hosseini subtly and cleverly poses yet another vexing question: Which is the better man—the one who can easily and grandiosely throw money around to garner popularity and admiration (and, as a secondary byproduct, help a few people out along the way)? Or the one whose authentic, feeling heart is in the right place, but who (like so many of us) is paralyzed by his own carefully-crafted, hard-won sense of wellbeing and cannot (or will not) follow through on his well-intentioned promises?

As if this were not enough to ponder, And the Mountains Echoed poses yet another universal dilemma in its portrayal of Pari’s conflicted relationship with Nila (her adoptive mother); Markos’s relationship with his mother (Odelia); and the relationship between Pari’s niece (and namesake) and her father, Abdullah (the original Pari’s long-lost brother): How do we reconcile our wish to remain loyal to family with our instinctive need to pursue our own dreams and fulfill our destinies? Odelia makes an apt and wise observation about this most irksome of life’s realities: “It’s a funny thing, Markos, but people have it mostly backward. They think they live by what they want. But really what guides them is what they’re afraid of. What they don’t want.” Besides being a brilliant writer, Mr. Hosseini is—as all good writers must be—a keen observer of human nature.

Several readers have complained that And the Mountains Echoed contains too many characters and confusing story lines, but Mr. Hosseini is an unimpeachable talent who has more than earned the right to experiment with characters and settings. And while his third novel can be a bit “tell-y” in places (Pari’s abbreviated recounting of her married life and the raising of her children, for example; Mr. Markos’s ruminations of his years in Tinos, Greece and his exodus to the far corners of the earth to escape his stifling young life), we should not punish Mr. Hosseini for having set the bar so high with his two prior books. Despite these minor flaws, Hosseini pulls this epic third novel off the ground and launches it through time and space with unequaled skill; his male characters in particular—Nabi (Pari’s step-uncle), Suleiman Wahdati (her adoptive father), Saboor (her biological father), and Abdullah (her brother) are each nuanced, complex, and deserving of compassion. Yes, this is a big story, and Hosseini uses numerous interdependent characters and subplots to deal with such unpleasant topics as the far-reaching consequences of war, separation, and disfigurement. Along the way, he handles—with his trademark sensitivity and grace—the various sacrifices we humans sometimes make balancing survival against our principles and beliefs.

But what really knocks this novel out of the ballpark is its ending. I read this book twice, and each time I finished, I was reduced to tears. The scenes between Abdullah and his grown daughter (whom he named Pari after his missing sister)—and the powerful messages of hope and connection that the concluding scenes evoke—make this work deserving of five stars and render it a classic in its own right.

View all my reviews