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'A Place For Us' Is A Skillfully-Drawn Family Saga

A Place for Us, the debut novel by author Fatima Farheen Mirza, opens with a kind of homecoming. Amar, the youngest child of an Indian American Muslim family, has returned after a three-year absence to attend his oldest sister Hadia's wedding. Layla, the young man's mother, has been looking forward to finally seeing her son, but is worried about how Amar's father, Rafiq, will react: "The only men she had left in this world to love and neither of them knew how to be with one another."

Mirza's book gets to a universal truth: To be part of a family is to learn how to be more than one person, how to remain an individual while fulfilling the duties we have to those who love us, who made us. It is almost never easy; it is sometimes, in fact, impossible. A Place for Us is a stunning novel about love, compassion, cruelty and forgiveness — the very things that make families what they are.

A Place for Us follows Amar and his sisters, Hadia and Huda, as they grow up in northern California. Their family is, at its best, a happy one, although Rafiq is a strict father who sometimes lets his temper get the best of him. The siblings have a tight bond, keeping secrets from their parents for one another, watching each other's backs, performing small acts of kindness when they can.

The family is a middle-class one, comfortable but not ostentatious, in contrast to the wealthy, well-known Ali family, with whom they're friendly. Hadia nurses a crush on Abbas Ali, the handsome and popular eldest son of the family. Amar, meanwhile, is fully in love with Abbas' sister, Amira: "Amira because of how she thought. ... Amira because no room was lit until she entered it. Amira because if it would not be Amira, it would be no one."

Amar and Amira embark on a secret romance; both know that her family wouldn't approve of her dating Amar, a poor student with little hope for a future as a successful professional. Their relationship is eventually found out and quashed, and a depressed Amar reacts by hanging out with a troubled crowd, eventually picking up some habits that threaten to derail his life.

It's no surprise that Mirza's novel contains a Romeo and Juliet-type storyline; the book's title, after all, seems to be a reference to the song "Somewhere" from West Side Story. It's risky for a writer to tackle young, doomed love — the topic lends itself easily to cliché. But Mirza does a brilliant job avoiding that; the story is deeply felt but never mawkish or sentimental.

Mirza's characters are beautifully drawn, and she has an extraordinary understanding of how people interact with another in both their best and worst moments. The relationship between Rafiq and Amar, in particular, feels very true to life; the father and son have opportunities to connect that almost always seem to end in near misses. In the book's heartbreaking final section, told in the second person from Rafiq to his son, he reflects, "You were stubborn in your sadness. You would enter it and not leave. And instead of softening, I hardened in my approach."

Mirza's characters are beautifully drawn, and she has an extraordinary understanding of how people interact with another in both their best and worst moments.

The structure of A Place for Us is unconventional; the novel goes back and forth in time, switching points of view. This isn't the easiest thing to pull off, but Mirza executes it perfectly, creating a constant tension in the narrative that keeps readers turning the pages, but is never cheap or exploitative. And her writing is gorgeous, unadorned but beautiful, and thankfully devoid of the self-conscious too-clever tricks that sometimes plague young authors. The dialogue in the novel is impressively naturalistic; she knows how people actually speak to one another, and realizes that sometimes what isn't said is just as important as what is.

It can be difficult to write about families; it's a well-worn topic in fiction, and after readers have waded through dozens of books that are essentially catalogs of grudges and resentments, they can be forgiven for being wary of another novel that focuses on domestic life. But it would be a shame for anyone to miss this miracle of a book. A Place for Us is a major accomplishment, a work of real beauty and fierce originality. Mirza, 27, writes with more grace and self-confidence than many authors who have been publishing before she was born, and it's going to be fascinating to see what she does next.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.