The thought that this world is full of books I cannot possibly read in a life time, is simultaneously scary and pacifying. And it comes to me as a genuine surprise when I learn that some really good movies are actually based on books. Watching said movies before reading the book is actually a good thing. You go in with little to no expectations, and you enjoy what you’re given for what it’s worth. That is exactly what happened to me when I watched the 2003 Oscar nominated movie House of Sand and Fog. In fact, the movie ranks as one of the most depressingly good movies I’ve ever seen. (And if you know me a little, you’ll know I love me some melancholia!) So when I started reading its book version, I experienced quite the opposite of what happens to us when we watch a movie version of a much loved book. Will this book stand up to the effect the movie had on me? Will it tug at my heart just like the movie?
Dubus’s book starts off a little slow. The first part of the novel is divided between two protagonists as they take turns in moving the narrative forward. Massoud Behrani is an ex-colonel from the Iranian army who, with his family, has sought refuge in America after the revolution. His wife Nadi has had a hard time acclimating herself to this new life. She still lives in her former world of riches, and is mostly depressed. Behrani buys a home that’s on auction from the county, and hopes that this will solve their monetary and familial problems. Nadi seems to feel better in the new house too.
But the house formerly belonged to Kathy Nicolo. While the house is paid for by father, Kathy ignores mails from the county that remind her of a tax payment because she’s too depressed after her husband Nick leaves her. Kathy is kicked out, and with the help of a cop, Lester Burdon, Kathy attempts to get her house back.
The beauty of a story like this is that it is so evenly divided between the two protagonists that you cannot possibly favor one over the other. Both Behrani and Kathy have their faults, and you feel sympathetic for them both. Each has a valid and urgent reason to want the house, and they are both not ready to back down. Both protagonists make mistakes that make the reader get annoyed at them, but they’re also both helpless, pitiable, and human. Dubus does a good job of portraying characters that are driven by their need for a simple, basic necessity – a home. Just a place that they want to claim as their own, and how their desire for this very normal need pushes them to the extreme and towards an inevitable ending. Throughout the novel, Dubus gives us hope that the two can make things work between themselves. And we’re cheering for the characters to make up, to patch up their differences and move on. But from our own experiences, we also know that to forgive and forget is one of the hardest things to do.
I am not sure if I could pick between the movie or the book. I need to watch the movie again to decide for sure. I must, however, give credit to Dubus for creating such magnificent characters, even though his narrative style is too detailed for my liking, and part two of the novel has too much Lester Burdon. Without Dubus’s novel, there’d be no movie. And for that, I thank him!