A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (October 21, 2014). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.
A substantial Jewish contingent established itself in Los Angeles in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, joining the daily battle between old-country culture and American ways in this multicultural city where everyone comes from elsewhere. In The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., Gina B. Nahai (Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith) explores the complicated forces holding this exile community together, sometimes in spite of itself.
Some immigrants reinvent themselves in a new country, while others never get free of the history they bring with them. The Soleymans have done both. By the time politics force Elizabeth Soleyman and her daughter Angela to escape Tehran, the young mother has lost nearly everything imaginable–parents, siblings, a husband, a child, and a home–but an old friend already in America, his connections to new friends, and her own startling intellect help her rise to the top of the Los Angeles Iranian-Jewish community.
But Raphael’s Son, the man whose claim to be her late husband’s nephew and heir has never been accepted by the Soleymans, has brought his mother’s mission to destroy Elizabeth and her family from the old country to the new, never foreseeing that the “curse of the widow’s sigh” might bring him down as well.
Nahai has crafted an engaging combination of family saga and murder mystery, placed it in the framework of an unfamiliar subculture, and populated it with fascinating characters. Flavored with both elements of magical realism and down-to-earth observations from a very specific cultural perspective, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. brings a little-known Los Angeles community to vivid life.
From Tehran to Los Angeles, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is a sweeping saga that tells the story of the Soleymans, an Iranian Jewish family tormented for decades by Raphael’s Son, a crafty and unscrupulous financier who has futilely claimed to be an heir to the family’s fortune. Forty years later in contemporary Los Angeles, Raphael’s Son has nearly achieved his goal—until he suddenly disappears, presumed by many to have been murdered. The possible suspects are legion: his long-suffering wife; numerous members of the Soleyman clan exacting revenge; the scores of investors he bankrupted in a Ponzi scheme; or perhaps even his disgruntled bookkeeper and longtime confidant.
Award-winning novelist Gina B. Nahai pulls back the curtain on a close-knit community that survived centuries of persecution in Iran before settling and thriving in the United States, but now finds itself divided to the core by one of its own members. By turns hilarious and affecting, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. examines the eternal bonds of family and community, and the lasting scars of exile.
From Chapter One:
“Raphael’s Son died alone in his car, sitting upright behind the wheel with his safety belt on and his throat slashed from right to left—a clean. some would say artful, cut of almost surgical precision. His body was discovered at 4.45 AM on Monday, June 24, 2013, by Neda Raiis, his wife of seventeen years who, according to her statement to the police, had found him cold and unresponsive in his gray, two-door Aston Martin with the personalized license plate—I WYNN—as it sat idling against the wrought-iron gates of their house on Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills. Nearly one hour before that, Neda had been awakened by what she imagined was a car accident—metal crashing against metal—on the street. She had spent the next fifty minutes drifting in and out of sleep. Then, finally, she had decided to investigate the source of the earlier disturbance, risen from bed, and walked the length of the yard to the front of the estate. The sound she had heard was that of the Aston Martin crashing head-on into the gate.”