Skip to main content

Lipstick in Afghanistan

Review

Lipstick in Afghanistan

Growing up in the blue-collar Boston neighborhood of Dorchester,
Elsa has always been the good daughter, helping her mom even when
her troubled older sister and brother disappear. During her high
school years, Elsa's life revolves around her home, where she
shares caregiver duties for her profoundly disabled niece, who has
been abandoned by her mother. Although she feels at times like
she'll never escape her humble roots and hardscrabble neighborhood,
her imagination is captured by a magazine photograph of refugees on
the other side of the world. A chance encounter with an ER nurse
convinces Elsa that, by becoming a nurse herself, she could have
the chance to make a difference in the world.

Following nursing school and a year-long stint in a busy Boston
hospital emergency room, Elsa applies for --- and is eventually
accepted by --- the medical relief program Aide du Monde. But
nothing she has encountered in her training or in Boston prepares
her for what she finds in Afghanistan. September 11, 2001 has just
passed, and Afghanistan is a country very much at war, suspicious
of the UN and US troops even as they try to define what life after
the Taliban will look and feel like. Elsa feels very young,
inexperienced, and unsure of what lies ahead. But she gains
confidence by packing an assortment of brightly colored lipsticks,
which make her feel beautiful and self-assured even in the midst of
abject poverty and brutal violence.

Elsa has been warned, for her own safety, not to fraternize with
the army personnel stationed in her part of Afghanistan. But faced
with few English speakers and nights of eating nothing but goat
meat and rice, she is pleased when she strikes up a friendship ---
and soon more --- with one of the soldiers. Diet Coke, comfortable
conversation and romance help Elsa feel at ease even as she
simultaneously becomes more emotionally and personally involved
with the Afghan people she's there to serve.

Debut novelist Roberta Gately was herself a nurse and an aid
worker in several developing countries, including Afghanistan. Her
novel vividly shows the kinds of ethical conflicts and cultural
complexities that go hand-in-hand with working in these parts of
the world. Elsa's new boyfriend warns her against becoming too
close with the native people, whom he has been taught to view as
adversaries. But her strong spirit and trusting nature convince her
time and again that the individuals she has met, particularly her
new friend Parween (who coincidentally shares her affection for
lipstick), need and deserve both her help and her friendship.

Although the lipstick conceit grows tiresome early on, LIPSTICK
IN AFGHANISTAN vividly depicts a place and a way of life that will
be both foreign and fascinating to many readers. Gately's
description of the culture's traditions and of Elsa's attempt to
integrate her life with theirs certainly illustrate the authority
of the author's own experience. The personal relationships and
cultural milieu explored here --- not to mention the extensive
discussion questions and author interview included in the novel ---
will make this an excellent choice for book club discussions.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 12, 2011

Lipstick in Afghanistan
by Roberta Gately

  • Publication Date: November 9, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Gallery
  • ISBN-10: 1439191387
  • ISBN-13: 9781439191385