The guiding premise behind Azar Nafisi's memoir Reading Lolita In Tehran, a bestseller and particular book-club favorite for its incorporation of Western classics like Daisy Miller and The Great Gatsby, is that literature ought not to be kept a secret. Nafisi, a former professor at the University of Tehran fired for refusing to wear a veil, continued to teach in secret and allow her students, virtually all Muslim women, to draw their own conclusions. In Nafisi's second memoir, Things I've Been Silent About, she trains her critical eye on a far more convoluted text—her own family history—exposing a Jamesian study of an unhappy marriage interrupted by political upheaval.
While comfortable, Nafisi's parents, who raised her in upper-middle-class Tehran in the waning years of the Shah's power, were never happy: Her mother Nehzat constantly complained about how Nafisi's father Ahmad, a local politician who eventually became the mayor of Tehran, couldn't live up to her dead first husband. Ahmad's infidelity—whose extent Nafisi admits is hard to ascertain—was kept in check only when he was convicted of plotting with rebel clerics to overthrow the Shah, and thrown into prison for almost five years. Once he came home, Nafisi watched the household fall apart for good while she chafed under the confines of her own young marriage, studied English, and began to envision a different life for herself.
Without the conceit of using literature to order her experiences, Things I've Been Silent About is discombobulating at first, as Nafisi flips from anecdotes about her parents at the end of their lives to foggier early memories. But like the novels she treasures, Nafisi teases the story of her own family out at length, until its themes become apparent. Her own diaries help, and her father's never-published memoirs are revealing: Just as Ahmed and Nehzat stayed unhappily bonded for most of their lives, they both rejected leaving Iran in spite of the upheavals they personally faced during the revolution. The insight Nafisi is able to bring to her own parents demonstrates a modesty rare to memoirists. Still, she doesn't conceal her own feelings, past and present, in weighing how they erred in raising her. In making herself a supporting character in the story of her life, she draws out a rare tale of family secrets and the importance of telling them.