Brief synopsis (back cover): Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.

Rating: ✈  Travel companion

Long story short: As a professor and a writer Nafisi expounds on what she knows best: trying to make sense of her reality through works of fiction. She juxtaposes literary analysis and narrative to help reshape her life under the Islamic Regime in Iran, to reassemble parts of her identity that had been broken or stripped away because of the religious fanaticism that engulfed the country.

There is a lot more textual analysis in this novel than I expected, so if you only want a story that shows what Iran was like in the 1980s and 1990s this may not be the book for you. For example, various iterations of violence seem muted and their consequences minimized because Nafisi isn’t always candid about them, choosing to use fiction as an escape from all the chaos.

The novel is divided into four sections titled “Lolita“, “Gatsby“, “James“, and “Austen“. I’m familiar with both Gatsby and Austen, and those were the chapters that engaged me the most because I had a deeper understanding of the connections that were being made between the fictional worlds of Jay Gatsby and Elizabeth Bennet and the reality that was Iran. That isn’t to say that you have to recognize all the works and authors Nafisi discusses to appreciate why they’re important to her and her students—she does a good job of making that clear—but I found it helpful.

If literary criticism and memoirs are up your alley then this is a great book to add to your TBR shelf. Have you read this book? What did you think?