In September 1981, Isaac Amin is removed from his Tehran jeweler shop by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and thrown in prison for charges that are unclear, but probably has to do with either his accumulated wealth (which marks him a Shah sympathizer) or the fact that he is a Jew (probably making him a pro-Israel Zionist). The story weaves between Isaac's horrific experiences in prison and his family's pained waiting and struggle to stay afloat. His wife, Farnaz, is left to figure out what happened when her husband doesn't come home from work. His eighteen-year-old son, Parviz, is stranded in New York, the money his father has been sending him at its end, and living on the charity of the Hassidic Jewish family with whom he boards. His nine-year-old daughter, Shirin, sees the guards who tore her family apart at work among her playmates, and soon becomes involved in her own secret way.
The Septembers of Shiraz is a fast and gripping read. The whole book is ruminative and elegantly written, calling up a vivid understanding of what daily life must have been like in Iran during the revolution. It's respectful of the horrors the characters experience without being grotesque. The writing is so smooth, though, that even the grimmest moments are compelling. My favorite passages were perhaps the ones from Parviz's point of view, as he struggles against the malaise and inactivity of being alone and depressed in a foreign country, taking a job for his Hassidic landlord while nurturing a secret crush on his host's untouchable daughter.
Sofer doesn't hide her own story, and it's clear that much of the book is autobiographical--her father was thrown into prison, and she fled Iran when she was 10 years old. There is a lot in the book about humanity, and the nuances of good and bad--how sometimes our most trusted friends betray us, but sometimes the people we expect to betray us do nothing but help. Isaac and Farnaz, missing each other acutely, one locked in prison and one trapped in her own house with the revolutionary guards watching her every move, each reflect on the failures of their marriage, the romance that brought them together, the compromises that have driven them apart. They each are forced to account for the friends and family they have lost, who were sinners in their faith, their politics, or their wealth.
I recommend this book highly--it's both very readable and (at least for people like me, who come into it with only a very hazy grasp of what happened in the 20th century in Iran) helpful in distilling history that is only poorly represented in the comings and goings of government and regimes.