Raphael’s Son — so called by a deranged mother in order to establish his legitimacy in the Soleyman family — has many enemies, especially since the economic meltdown of 2008 revealed that his Ponzi schemes defrauded many in the Iranian Jewish community of Los Angeles. His disappearance and suspected murder opens the far-ranging novel of complex relationships between several generations of the Soleymans, a Los Angeles family of a long and honorable status in Iran. Between the mystery of Raphael’s Son, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. recounts his family’s storied existence in Iran, their hasty escape from Iran during the revolution of the 1970s, and their eventual reestablishment in the sunny clime of California.
Headed by Aaron, the brother of the late Raphael, the Soleyman family has to contend with the bitter anger of Raphael’s widow, whose claims to the Soleyman fortune for herself and her son are the recurring factors in the narrative. Raphael and other family members are endowed with certain physical peculiarities that figure into the plot and bring an element of the surreal, woven into the story’s structure.
Author Gina B. Nahai paints the reconstituted Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles (and, by extension, New York) as a refugee community seeking to hold onto their memories by associating exclusively with one another and speaking in Farsi, the Persian language. Their conventions continue to dominate their lives and the fear of fallen aabehroo continues to influence their behavior. Only Angela Soleyman, the brilliant, highly educated but unmarried and socially inept daughter of Elizabeth and Aaron, takes challenges these conventions in her blog, “The Pearl Cannon”.
Nahai, herself an Iranian Jew, brings the many customs and conventions that seem to rule behavior into the novel. The author’s satiric point of view is occasionally quite unkind to the Iranian community that she obviously knows well: she considers their emphasis on appearances, money, and family connections shallow and outdated. Nahai defines aabehroo, with no English equivalent, as a constant feature of the Soleymans’ lives: “alluding to the impression that others hold of an individual’s virtue and respectability.” The threat of loss of one’s aabehroo comes up repeatedly throughout the story as the impetus behind a character’s decisions.
By the end, though the identity of the eponymous Jonah S. is revealed, solving the murder doesn’t seem to matter much. Nahai’s wit entertains throughout the novel, and The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is a fast-paced read, interesting for the history of the period of the revolution and subsequent relocation of the Jews of Iran.