Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar Nafisi

An intriguing concept, pairing a memoir about living through the Iranian Revolution and the resulting totalitarian regime with literary criticism of Western literature as an attempt to put it all into perspective. Unfortunately Nafisi’s effort fell flat to me, mostly because the writing feels too weak for the task.

The structure of the book itself is confusing, as she shifts around just enough that it’s hard to follow the sequence of events, plus there are many little digressions within chapters that don’t seem to add to the story. Though the book is ostensibly centered around the reading group she begins with some students after leaving her teaching position at the University of Tehran when the veil is imposed on all female professors, most of the book is not about this reading group but the events leading up to the formation of the reading group. Despite this, Nafisi goes into detail describing each of the students in turn at the beginning of the book. Yet, possibly because she has mixed up the details to protect everyone’s identities, they still appear hazy and undefined. This is kind of a petty complaint, but several times she makes comments about “reading Lolita in Tehran” in a manner that suggests it must not have been the original title, otherwise why would you namedrop your title SO MANY TIMES in the book?

I made it through about two-thirds of the story before skimming through the rest. I can’t figure out if the book wasn’t edited enough or was edited too much — likely for the protection of those involved, but to the detriment of the story. It’s disappointing as it should be an incredible account of a tumultuous time and place in history, but Nafisi comes off kind of smug and her story, convoluted.