Tehrangeles: A Novel

  • By Porochista Khakpour
  • Pantheon
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Chris Rutledge
  • June 14, 2024

A mostly successful skewering of influencer culture and the super-wealthy.

Tehrangeles: A Novel

Porochista Khakpour’s Tehrangeles is a parody of the wealthy in the 21st century focusing on the four Iranian-American Milani sisters and their multimillionaire parents, whose privilege comes at the cost of any meaningful interior life.

Los Angeles has a vast community of affluent Iranian Americans — hence the book’s title — and the siblings’ behavior and attitudes are shared by their compatriots. As Mina (the only one with real internality) describes it, Tehrangeles is “hell dressed like heaven or the opposite, depending on who you’re asking.” She and her sisters are awash in “fendi and gucci and chanel and versace” but struggle to connect with themselves and each other.

Their riches come via their father, Al, the man behind the Pizzabomme, a microwavable snack that’s a cross between Hot Pockets and Cinnabon. He long ago found work in a neighborhood pizza parlor after landing in America from Iran, making meals for himself using leftover scraps from the shop. After colleagues and customers tried one of his special creations and loved it, he knew he’d stumbled onto something huge. It’s said that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. The Milanis’ stems from launching an empire via a high-calorie (yet delicious) public-health threat.

Although Al is the patriarch, his daughters are the centerpiece of the novel, and we learn how each of them — reflecting the shallowness of American culture in her own way — adapts to life as a Persian Valley Girl. The eldest, Violet, serves as a second mother to the others and is damned with the faint praise of being “dependable.” Not a very sexy word in their flashy world. She’s also struggling to make it as a model and trying to find her place in that competitive field.

Consummate consumer and narcissist Roxanna, the second eldest, is the one who most gets the culture — and, in an offbeat way, herself. She “always smelled like a mall — an upscale mall — but a mall, nonetheless” and declares, “I’ve always been the Main Character” in her own life and in the lives of those around her. It’s no surprise that she’s the driving force behind a reality show being planned about the sisters. She intends to out-Kardashian the Kardashians.

Third comes Mina, “the very informed one” and the “conscience of the family.” She’s also closeted and trying to figure out her sexuality in a family where her sisters boldly assert theirs. Although framed as a bit of a virtue-signaler, Mina is the only sister treated by the author with any sympathy.

Haylee, the youngest, is a surprise. Amid the chaos of her family, this high-school freshman somehow emerges as a full-fledged MAGA-style conspiracy theorist, questioning vaccines and the very existence of covid. The others look upon her as a joke, albeit a scary one.

The recent pandemic serves as the backdrop for the narrative and magnifies the traits of each sister. Roxanna expands her mini-empire as a wannabe social-media influencer. Mina and Haylee take opposite sides in online battles over covid, with Mina joining the throngs banging pots and pans to celebrate first responders, and Haylee slipping further into a tribe of deniers. Above all, each young woman comes across as personally aggrieved by the inconvenience of it all. How dare they have to suffer like commoners?

The main set piece of the story is a party designed for “Popping the pandemic’s cherry!” Despite the fact that the virus still rages, Roxanna corrals her sisters into planning the most lavish, star-studded fete Tehrangeles has ever seen. It costs over $1 million and looks like it. A petting zoo, two shamans, and off-brand Dua Lipas and Cardi Bs populate the proceedings. Says Roxanna of the over-the-top soiree:

“We might as well live it up for all the people who can’t…cuz they’re poor.”

Sympathetic characters, they are not.

It’s no surprise that such disregard for the lives of the masses comes at little cost. A few online trolls criticize the sisters, and yes, Violet does contract covid, but like many wealthy people, she gets over it fairly quickly and emerges unscathed. Mina even leaves the party with a new girlfriend.

This could all make for an effective satire but for one glaring, deeply problematic fault: To heighten the sardonic evisceration of the ultra-rich, Khakpour gives the sisters eating disorders, which is played for laughs. Violet, fighting off a transition to plus-sized modeling, is briefly bulimic. Roxanna brags about being “ana” (anorexic). And Haylee is “unabashedly orthorexic” and designs intensive exercise programs for the rest of the family. Trivializing something as significant as an eating disorder is a stain on an otherwise successful work.

Satire is most effective when it casts light on the powerful and mocks them for their arrogance and their blinders, and Khakpour largely pulls it off. Minus the subplot referenced above, Tehrangeles is an engaging novel filled with characters you may not love but certainly can’t look away from — the kind who make you think about our consumerist culture and what its hollowness says about us all.

Chris Rutledge is a husband, father, writer, nonprofit professional, and community member living in Silver Spring, MD. Besides the Independent, his work has appeared in Kirkus Reviews, American Book Review, and countless intemperate Facebook posts, which will surely get him into trouble one day.

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