Coffee and Reading – A Cup of Friendship Book Review

I live in a rural area, in the mountains of Tennessee, and the local county library is quite small. So when I recently searched there for a coffee-themed novel to read for fun, I honestly did not expect to find anything. But, to my surprise, the results came back listing a novel called A Cup of Friendship by Deborah Rodriguez. The book itself looked inviting, and neither the coffee lover nor the reader in me could resist. Here’s a quick review for any of you who might find it intriguing, too.

About the Book

A Cup of Friendship was published by Ballantine Books in 2011. It was the first fictional novel by author, Deborah Rodriguez. She had previously published a bestselling memoir, entitled Kabul Beauty School, in 2007. She has since published a sequel to this book, entitled Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul (2016), as well as the novel The Zanzibar Wife (2018). A second memoir, The House on Carnival Street, was released in 2015, after originally being published as Margarita Wednesdays in 2014.

At some point the title of A Cup of Friendship was changed to The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul. I could not find information on exactly when or why this took place. I’m guessing it was simply an effort to make the title more descriptive for potential readers, since the prime setting of the novel is, indeed, a small coffee shop in Kabul.

I’m also guessing that it was a connected reference to the updated title that allowed the original A Cup of Friendship version of the book held by my local library to show up in my search for coffee-related reading material. Because, honestly, a “cup of friendship” could be filled with anything, couldn’t it? Maybe even (gasp) tea! So it’s definitely good they clarified that the beverage was coming from a coffee shop.

I’m joking here, of course. But, as it relates to the story being reviewed, I will have more to share later in this post about what’s really in those “cups of friendship.” This aspect of the novel wasn’t quite what I expected.

Inspired by Actual Events

Now that you know Ms. Rodriguez has published not just one, but two, memoirs, you won’t be surprised to learn that A Cup of Friendship is based, loosely, on actual events and experiences in her life. Ms. Rodriguez not only operated a beauty school but also ran a coffee shop during the years she spent living in Kabul.

For me, knowing there were true-to-life aspect of this story made it all the more compelling to pick up the book. I have never been to Afghanistan myself, so “visiting” a coffee shop, even a fictional one, that sits in a corner of the world so far from my own was too good an opportunity to pass up.

And from the first page of A Cup of Friendship, I admit I was hooked.

About the Author – Determination Amid Turmoil

Although I have not read either of Deborah Rodriguez’ memoirs (yet), the basics of her life story appear on both her own website and in her Author Biography on various literary websites. She also answered questions about her life in Afghanistan that were printed at the end of the copy I borrowed of A Cup of Friendship.

Not surprisingly, her story — that of a woman trying to elevate the independance of other women in a politically unstable, often-violent country with deep-rooted, male-dominant traditions — is rife with turmoil.

Although the details are sparse in the brief online accounts and the interview mentioned, it’s obvious Ms. Rodriguez and her students faced many harrowing challenges while she taught at the Kabul Beauty School. Enough to fill a memoir, in fact, for which she received payment from Random House and published in 2007.

Although it was her publishing income that allowed her to become a partner in a Kabul coffee shop, the memoir itself was, it seems, the beginning of Ms. Rodriquez’ end in Afghanistan. As quoted on BookBrowse, “The Kabul Beauty School caused outrage in Afghanistan, where websites revealed the salon girls’ true identities. They have been denounced as prostitutes who have soiled the reputation of Afghan women.”

Ms. Rodriguez fled Kabul under extreme duress in May 2007 when she learned she was at risk of being kidnapped in a plot to steal the money she had earned from her memoir. According to the interview printed in A Cup of Friendship, the window of opportunity for her and her son to flee the country to safety was extremely narrow. She had no chance to bring closure to any part of her Afghani life, professional or personal.

The person she was fleeing? Her own Afghani husband.

afghanistan

A Cup of Friendship

Despite the personal tribulations Ms. Rodriguez faced in Kabul, she weaves an uplifting story in A Cup of Friendship.

She does not shy away from the ever-present threat of violence that colors life in Kabul and the surrounding areas. Nor does she cast a veil over the atrocities faced by women in Afghanistan.

Yet, as she takes us into the very hearts of her characters, she breathes vibrant, compelling life into an area of the world many of us will never see let alone experience to the extent the author has. Her love for Kabul shines through in her prose, and that makes it easy for her to draw us into it.

Synopsis

Sunny is the 38-year-old American owner of The Kabul Coffee House, a place where the regulars are comprised of “misfits, missionaries and mercenaries, Afghans and foreigners.” The coffee shop hums with life, in part because Sunny keeps an armed guard at the entrance and makes patrons check their guns at the door.

Although A Cup of Friendship revolves predominantly around Sunny and her coffee shop, we meet a wide array of characters throughout the book. Some, like Tommy and Jack — both American men, each with a unique place in Sunny’s heart — we get to know predominantly through Sunny’s perspective on them. Others, like Yazmina, Candace, Isabel, and Halajan, carry compelling story lines of their own.

The novel begins with Yazmina, a pregnant Afghan widow, being forcibly taken from her home as payment for her uncle’s debt. As Yazmina grapples with her own terrifying fate as an unmarried pregnant woman in a society that condemns both, she also fears for the little sister, Layla, she left behind. Sunny gives Yazmina a job in her coffee shop in a gesture of great compassion, though both women know the arrangement puts them, as well as those around them, in grave danger.

Candace is an American woman who frequents The Kabul Coffee House with her handsome Afghan lover, Wakil. She has left behind a life lived in the shadow of her powerful and wealthy American husband to pursue a new life of passion and purpose with Wakil. But life in Afghanistan does not unfold exactly the way she envisions, and she will discover that her most difficult choices lie ahead of her still.

Isabel is an outspoken British journalist who also becomes a patron in Sunny’s cafe. Isabel lands in Kabul intent on exposing the atrocities faced by women in an Afghanistan that is slowly succumbing to rigid Taliban rule. Her relentless pursuit of the truth, however, will ultimately affect everyone around her in ways no one could foresee.

Halajan is a headstrong, 60-year-old Afghan widow who, by virtue of her husband’s passing, owns the building that Sunny rents for her coffee shop. Halajan begrudgingly follows the ever-stifling rules imposed on women by the Taliban, but she remembers days past when her city — and especially its women — were freer and happier. Though she is as tough and outspoken as she dares to be, Halajan hides two secrets from those she loves. And one of those secrets puts her in direct conflict with the strict traditionalism of the grown son who now oversees her life.

coffee shop with brick walls

What I Liked

As we meet Sunny, we learn why she feels Kabul is the perfect place for her:

Since nothing here was on solid ground, anything was possible, and anything could happen.

As I made my way through A Cup of Friendship, I found the overall story mirroring this sentiment of Sunny’s. From the opening scene, we learn how tenuous life is in the region. And as the book goes on, we watch as every character deals with a world in flux. Each and every one one of them will be altered by the end of the book. It’s watching the changes unfold, of course, that creates all the fun for the reader.

Although one could hardly call the novel action-packed, the story does move along at a good pace. Between the likable characters, the poignant dilemmas they face, and the vibrant descriptions of the city and the surrounding countryside, I found myself compelled to keep turning the pages.

What to Expect

Should you care to read it, you’ll find A Cup of Friendship to be a rather easy-going novel. While the author does not avoid difficult topics and situations, she does not delve too deeply into gritty, unnerving realism, either. Situations tend to resolve themselves, for the most part, rather neatly. Perhaps too neatly in some cases, but that is one of the reasons we call it fiction.

Some readers might also find that the characters in the book are a bit shallow. I would not entirely disagree. With so many strong leads in the story line, it would have taken hundreds more pages to delve deeply into the psyche of each. That said, however, I felt the author described each character’s past adequately enough for us to understand their current motivations.

Finally, I think this is a novel that will appeal to women more than men. With its unique cultural setting and some “darker” elements mixed into the plot, this is not straight up “chick lit” or “beach reading.” The story is, however, driven by a cast of female characters and a good bit of romance, though, so I don’t see it appealing to too many men.

What Was Disappointing

Being the coffee lover I am, I will admit I was disappointed that the book barely gave a nod to the actual coffee served in The Kabul Coffee House. Since the author did co-own such a shop in Kabul, even if only for a short time, I do think she missed an opportunity to weave some true-to-life Afghan coffee culture into her story.

What’s more, when the story did place some emphasis on what the patrons of The Kabul Coffee House were drinking, it was more often tea than coffee. And, even more often than tea, it was wine! Much was made of clandestinely serving wine from the cafe’s teapots during more major events in the book, in fact, while I was still wondering about the coffee…

Besides a few mentions of lattes and cappuccinos, one could easily forget the setting was a coffee shop rather than just any old restaurant or diner.

cappuccino and coffee beans

The lack of “coffee talk” does not detract from the story as a whole, however, and most readers are not going to feel the same disappointment I did over this “missing element.” But the fact remains that I picked up the book, in part, to gain some insight into how coffee in an Afghan coffee shop would differ from that I’m familiar with here in the United States. I daresay I even harbored a glimmer of hope there might be some descriptions of preparations I could try. But, alas, I came away with an empty cup in that regard, so to speak.

My Recommendation

Despite the general simplicity of the plot and a number of overly-tidy resolutions (and my personal disappointment in learning nothing about The Kabul Coffee House’s coffee), I did enjoy A Cup of Friendship. It’s a relatively light, fast-paced read filled with likable characters set in a unique locale. I recommend the book to any woman looking for a quick, entertaining read with a good dash of romance in the mix.

The Final Sip

A Cup of Friendship is a story about strong women making their way in a country and culture that strives to keep them subjugated and living in the shadows. At times the subjugating forces succeed in tragic and heart-wrenching ways. But sometimes, despite all odds, the indomitable spirit — be it of a man or a woman — triumphs. And that’s what makes this novel a satisfying read.

 


NOTE: Should you wish to purchase a copy of the book in this review, clicking on the image below will take you to Amazon.com. The link is an affiliate link, meaning, if you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission.

 


Have you read A Cup of Friendship or any of Deborah Rodriguez’s books? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought in the comments below.

26 Comments

  1. Sipping coffee, learning about various cultures, and reading memoirs are some of my favorite things. Seeing them all blended together makes A Cup of Friendship sound like (hmm…what do coffee drinkers say instead of “my cup of tea”)? You write a compelling review, Cheri.

    I have a coffee-themed memoir at my bedside that has been in and out of the library several times over recent months but I just can’t swallow it on top of everything else I’m trying to consume.

    • I’m glad you found the review intriguing. It was an interesting book. The author’s story is even more interesting to me than her fictional work. Now I’m very curious what the coffee-themed memoir is that you just can’t swallow at the moment. Hopefully you will get through it before long (or be content with letting it go). Thank you for visiting and commenting.

  2. Glen

    Too bad there wasn’t much description of coffee or tea served in the Kabul coffee shop. Particularly cardamom tea which is common and has its own sub-culture. It is definitely an acquired taste! 🙂  Plus, it would have been common to see the so powerful Turkish coffee and chai tea from Pakistan. But having lived in the middle east for 6 years, I can understand the ever-present dangers to foreigners, particularly women.

    • Cheri

      Well I feel better about my disappointment in the “coffee (and tea) culture” being excluded from the story now that someone who has lived in the region also thinks it was a missed opportunity. That said, I think the author of the book is a lot braver than I would ever be…as a woman raised in America, I’m not sure I’d handle well at all the subjugation women face in so much of the Middle East. So I found the book fascinating from that perspective, and I’m now interested in reading her memoirs. And cardamom tea…definitely an acquired taste! haha  Thanks for your insightful comment, Glen.

  3. Clement

    Thank you very much for this great post, I find it really interesting and nice. You must have put a whole lit if energy into writing this and I really appreciate that. I think the plot for the story is well outlined so also the concept behind the book. I fail to understand why the author turned down the Afghan coffee. 

    • Cheri

      I fail to understand her leaving out the coffee culture, too, but I guess the author gets to choose what she writes about! I was disappointed in that aspect, but not in the book overall. Thanks for your comment, Clement.

  4. DorcasW

    Hi; thanks for your well-written post on the cup of friendship. If I can find so much interest in reading your article I know precisely how fulfilling it will be when reading The Cup Of Friendship firsthand.

    Because of cultural differences, only a woman with strong determination can bring any form of change to a woman’s life in Afghanistan.

    According to the title of the book, the writer was comparing a cup of friendship to a cup of coffee for a real coffee lover. 

    Do keep up the good work

    DorcasW

    • Cheri

      I agree with you, Dorcas, that it takes a strong woman to help other women in Afghanistan. And, for that, I find the author’s life quite fascinating and look forward to reading her memoirs. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  5. arnaiemhasan

    Hey,

    This is a great article. After reading your article, I understood what A Cup of Friendship was about. The book sounds like it could be one of the best books I have read for a while. There are at least five characters who hold the focus for a chapter or more. The characters also represent different nationalities as well as different mindsets to make the story more intriguing. I appreciated seeing the characters help up next to one another. Thanks for sharing this informative review with us. 

    • Cheri

      I’m glad you found the article informative. It is definitely a unique book with a lot of different perspectives presented through its main characters. Thank you for visiting and commenting.

  6. Todd Matthews

    I can see myself getting into this novel. While my favorite genre is fantasy of all sorts, I do like books that one, take place in distant countries, especially the Middle East, and two, judging from the synopsis, there’s suspense involved, which hooks me from the get-go. Overall, I believe your review is very well detailed and any reader to your site will see upon reading the review whether the book is right for them. 

    • Cheri

      I so appreciate your comment, Todd, as what I most like to get reviews for myself is a clear indication of whether a book “suits my tastes” or not. I do think A Cup of Friendship may play too heavily on the romance side of things to appeal to a lot of men (at least the ones I know haha), but there are most definitely aspects of the plot to appeal to both men and women. Thanks for your kind feedback.

  7. Nathaniel

    Hey cheri, I think that book will be a good read it sound like something I would like to see how the life’s of all those individuals mentioned would be in twined through this coffee house, and the fact that it’s based partly on a real place makes it more intriguing. I will most likely check it out. 

    • Cheri

      That is really what captivated me, Nathaniel, that the story was based on the author’s real-life experiences. I find her story fascinating enough that I look forward now to reading her memoirs. If you happen to read A Cup of Friendship / The Little Coffee Shop in Kabul, I hope you’ll let me know what you think of it (and I hope you’ll enjoy it!). Thanks for visiting!

  8. Louis

    Hello Cheri,

    A cup of friendship would sure be an interesting book to enjoy. Especially because of the originality of the plot. I’ll like to travel with the writer to explore the confines of kaboul from the comfort of my home. Perhaps the name should have remained a cup of friendship since there was not so much about in the plot.

    • Cheri

      I have to agree, Louis…I think the original title was better since changing it to include Coffee Shop in the title did lead me to believe there would be more included about the coffee culture in the region. I think that definitely could have made the book a bit richer, but it was still a good book that I couldn’t put down as it drew to a close. Thanks for your comment.

  9. sanjay

    I always like to read a novel that is inspired by true events as it doesn’t sound like a fairytale. It seems like an interesting plot but connects with people’s life. I also like the name of the novel as I am also a coffee lover and starts my day with a sip of coffee and reading. I am interested in reading this novel by reading your review. Thanks

    • Cheri

      I really enjoyed that the book was set in a part of the world I’m not personally familiar with. That made it a lot more intriguing. Though, as noted, I do wish there had been more inclusion of the coffee culture of the region in the book, as I would have enjoyed that immensely. Still a nice read, though, with very interesting characters. Thanks for your comment, Sanjay.

  10. Ayodeji

    Hi Cheri,

    I love Deborah Rodriguez novels, especially the best selling memoir titled “The Kabul Beauty School”. A novel where an American Woman Goes Behind the Veil. She spent five years teaching and later directing the Kabul Beauty School, the first modern beauty academy and training salon in Afghanistan. The novel was captivating.

    Wonderful post you got here. You have come with incredible set of bucket list of Deborah Rodriguez’s novels. Thanks for the review, I really enjoyed your post. 

    • Cheri

      I love that you are familiar with Deborah Rodriguez’ novels and memoirs. I’ve got “The Kabul Beauty School” on my list, and it’s good to know that you enjoyed it. It sounds fascinating. Honestly, I HER quite fascinating. For a “beautician,” she has sure done a lot of amazing things in her life! I find her writing style enjoyable and accessible so am sure I will enjoy her other books as much as “A Cup of Friendship”…even if I’m still disappointed she didn’t write more about COFFEE…haha. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Ayodeji.

  11. Kehinde Segun

    This is really lovely post to engage in. I really admire people that loves it because of how they engage them selves world wide is so so amazing. I am really disappointed too in the novelist for turning down the afghan coffee because she missed a great opportunity Afghan culture into her story

    • Cheri

      It is unfortunate the author chose not to make more of the coffee culture of the area, especially considering the story is set in a coffee shop! It is still interesting, I agree, to learn about people in other areas of the world with which we are not familiar. Life around the globe is so varied…just like the coffee we can find in our cups. Thanks for commenting, Kehinde.

  12. Chris

    Sounds like a pretty unique and therefore interesting plot for a book, and I like stories which originate and are based in areas of the world I have not been to before. 

    You mention that the author probably does her best to avoid the more gritty subjects of the area – do you feel that stands against the plot overall, and it could have done with a bit more ‘darkness’?

    • Cheri

      Chris I definitely think a bit more “grittiness” would have elevated the book even further above the almost-chick-lit category it falls into. But then it’s entirely the author’s prerogative to express things as she wishes…and maybe she just had a bit too much of that “darkness” while living in Afghanistan. As stated, I surely would have liked to learn more about the coffee culture of the area through the book, but I guess that was the author’s prerogative as well…haha. 

  13. Katya Kbar

    Well, even not being a coffee drinker I am rather disappointed to learn there isn´t much discussion of actual coffee in the book. Coffee is to… hmmm… what´s a good over-arching term?.. cultures-influenced-by-Islam as tea is to Japanese culture. It’s important and woven into life in many ways… Nonetheless, I think I will give the book a read, because it sounds like an enjoyable middle-ground of some cultural learning without too much Soul-Grinding Realism. Just my… cup of tea.

    • I’m glad you understand my disappointment over the lack of “coffee culture” in the book, Katya. I didn’t necessarily expect it to dominate the story, but I didn’t anticipate it would be entirely absent, either. Ah well. I hope you enjoy the book if you give it a read, and I hope you’ll come back to let us know what you thought of it, too. It’s a nice enough novel for immersing oneself in for pure entertainment. Enjoying a cup of one’s favorite beverage while reading doesn’t hurt the experience, either. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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