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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.