As someone who had loved Hosseini's past two books, I expected certain things from his latest. Not so much formulaic but I was expecting a story from that beleaguered country of Afganistan, that talked of relationships torn asunder and sustained by indomitable human hope.
"And the Mountains Echoed", the back cover tells you, is the story of Abdullah and his little sister, Pari. He is more than a brother to her - he is the father (their own is too careworn to be fully there) and the mother who died while giving birth to her. The book opens with a fable that their father, Saboor, tells them about another father who makes some difficult choices for the love of his son. The first part of the book portrays the obvious devotion that nine year old Abdullah has for the three year old Pari. Saboor is a man, old before his time, working so hard to provide for his family that all the softness seems to be leached out of him. He is not harsh, just not openly affectionate. His love finds expression in the imaginative bedtime stories that he occasionally weaves for his young children. It is a clear evidence of Hosseini's maturity as a story-teller that he does not have to say these things - he shows them subtly.
Their lives change when the three of them undertake a journey to Kabul in early 1950s - when the country was still relatively peaceful, though the sheen of prosperity could be seen only in the capital. They go to meet the Wahdatis, employers of Nabi, Abdullah's step uncle and the older brother of Saboor's second wife, Parwana.
But just as you think that Hosseini would now trace lives of the brother and sister as they grow up, he throws you acurve ball. He goes back and forth in time, telling the respective stories of different characters - Parwana, Nabi, Nila Wahdati and even the Greek surgeon who stays in the Wahdati mansion in 21st century. All of them are loosely tied, with the common thread of their connection - often distant and sometimes close - with Abdullah and Pari. The overall impression is that the book is less a cohesive novel but more a collection of short stories, with common characters popping up here and there. And the end, when it comes, is not quite a full circle but then life rarely is.
Hosseini's writing style has matured from the heartfelt and simple to sophisticated and articulate, in the style of modern classics. I admire that - his growth and his penchant for learning. The characters are all individuals, with their flaws and perfections, their hopes and dreams charted across a canvas stretching from the fictional Afgan village of Shadbagh to Kabul to Paris to Greece and finally US. This book is probably more daring in its narrative style than The Kite Runner or The Thousand Splendid Suns but yet there is something lacking. It has heart but not the emotions that made the other two so much more. Throughout the book, I kept waiting for that tug at the heart, the emotional wringer (not sappy mush) which is Hosseini trademark but it never came.
Oh, there are lovely scenes galore - Abdullah trading his only shoes for a rare peacock feather because his sister loves them. Or, Parwana's one-sided love for Saboor, even as he is enchanted by her beautiful twin sister. Saboor as a child telling the twins how the big tree in the village has the power to grant wishes - ten exact leaves on your head a benediction. But, it just needed, perhaps, a little less sophistry.
It is probably unfair - an author's work biggest criticism being his growth and the high benchmark of his own books - but that is just how things are.
Final recommendation: read it. It is better than lot of other books out there - it only falls short of Hosseini's own standards.