55 pages 1 hour read

Andre Dubus III

House of Sand and Fog

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1999

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Summary and Study Guide


House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, originally published in 1999, is a crime novel concerning a dispute over the ownership of a house in the Bay Area beach town of Corona, California. Told primarily through the dueling perspectives of a recovered addict and Iranian exile, the novel interrogates the nature of American identity and the integrity of social relationships. House of Sand and Fog has earned numerous recognitions: It was selected for Oprah’s Book Club and qualified as a finalist for the National Book Award. In 2003 the novel was adapted into a major motion picture starring Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley. This guide references the First Vintage Contemporaries edition originally published in March 2000.

Plot Summary

House of Sand and Fog follows Massoud Behrani, a former Iranian colonel who fled to America with his wife and two children after the Iranian Revolution, and Kathy Nicolo, a recovering addict whose husband recently left her, as they compete for ownership of a one-story bungalow in the beachside Bay Area town of Corona.

The novel opens with Behrani, whose daughter is recently married, seeing a newspaper advertisement for a bungalow auction in Corona. He wins the auction, spending the remainder of his family’s savings to flip the house. After initial resistance from his wife, Nadi, and his son, Esmail, Behrani uses his military bravado to order them to move into their new house.

Meanwhile, Kathy, who has been living in the house (which she inherited from her father), is ordered by police and county officials to immediately vacate the property due to a business tax she supposedly failed to pay. One of the police deputies, Lester Burdon, takes pity on her and helps her relocate to a motel. Later he visits Kathy off-duty on the pretense of checking on her well-being; he is obviously attracted to her despite his marriage. Kathy also enlists the help of lawyer Connie Walsh, who discovers that the county unlawfully evicted Kathy, as she didn’t owe any taxes.

Behrani begins work on his recently purchased house, listing its sale and hiring carpenters to install a widow’s walk. Kathy drives by to check on the house and is enraged to see the two men working on it. In the process of confronting them, she injures her foot on some carpentry and meets Nadi, who tends to her wound. Soon afterward Kathy and Lester begin a physical relationship, and he relocates her to a second motel. Kathy again visits the house to convince Behrani to rescind his sale with the county, but he gruffly turns her away.

Lester takes Kathy out on an expensive date and, despite her sobriety, the two share a bottle of wine. Over time Kathy’s drinking with Lester increases, and she finds herself waking up with hangovers. Lester, who has two young children, tells his wife Carol about his affair with Kathy. After leaving his wife, Lester relocates Kathy and himself to a fishing cabin owned by a fellow officer.

As Kathy worries about her home, Behrani is pleased with his turn of fortune and his current place in life. However, he is bothered by Kathy’s frequent intrusions. These become especially serious when Kathy encourages Lester, who has spent the night drinking heavily, to visit the Behranis at the house while in uniform. Behrani reports Lester’s behavior to an officer working with the sheriff department’s internal affairs unit.

While Lester settles things with his family, Kathy visits Nadi, hoping to appeal to her on an emotional level. Kathy feels they are making progress until Behrani unexpectedly returns home and forces Kathy into her car, leaving bruises on her arms. She gets extremely drunk at a mall and fantasizes about burning the house down. She discovers Lester’s service pistol in her car and robs a gas station for a can of gasoline, which she plans to use to burn down the house. However, when Kathy arrives at the house, she becomes depressed and unsuccessfully attempts suicide. Behrani spots her and takes the gun from her. Nadi tends to her, but Kathy attempts suicide again by swallowing pills. Again the Behranis save her, and Massoud hopes their family’s kindness will soften Kathy’s heart when it comes to rescinding the sale of the house.

Lester receives a phone call from internal affairs requesting his immediate presence. Instead he returns to the cabin, where he waits for Kathy. When she fails to appear, he goes searching for her and eventually arrives at the house in Corona. He peeks through the windows and sees his service pistol and the Behranis, who appear anxious. He breaks into the house through the window and grabs his gun, which he uses to threaten the family. They attempt to explain the situation, but Lester sees no alternative and holds them captive.

After ensuring Kathy is safe, Lester locks the Behranis in the bathroom and attempts to coerce Massoud into selling the home back to the county. Behrani appears to agree, although he assures his wife and son that he intends to do no such thing. Lester meets with the internal affairs officer the following morning, then returns to find Kathy fully awake. After explaining the situation, Lester tells her to watch Nadi while he escorts Esmail and Behrani to the county tax office at gunpoint, although he has unloaded his weapon to avoid a lethal situation. As he escorts them toward the building, Esmail steals Lester’s weapon, and Behrani attempts to grapple the deputy. Lester decides not to tell Esmail that the weapon is unloaded, and Behrani orders his son to keep it pointed at the deputy. Police officers descend on the scene and shoot Esmail twice when he doesn’t drop Lester’s gun quickly enough.

Behrani is briefly detained before learning Lester has corroborated his innocence and he is free to go. He rushes over to the hospital, praying for Esmail’s recovery. However, a doctor tells him that his son has died. Behrani, grief-stricken and enraged, goes looking for Lester. When he cannot find him, Behrani drives back to the house in Corona and strangles Kathy. He suffocates Nadi, who is asleep with a headache, before writing a will leaving the house to his daughter and suffocating himself to death with a plastic bag.

Lester is arrested and goes to jail, where he fruitlessly attempts to call Kathy. He mourns the life he has given up, as well as his part in Esmail’s death, and worries about what will happen to him when other inmates realize that he is a police officer. Meanwhile, Kathy, who survived Behrani’s attack, wakes up in a hospital, unable to speak. She learns she is being arrested for her part in holding the Behranis captive and, after a brief recovery period in the hospital, is taken to jail. Although her voice recovers, Kathy lets other inmates assume that she’s mute. Feeling remorse for her role in the Behranis’ deaths, Kathy shows little interest in mounting a legal defense. As the novel ends, Kathy appears to settle into her life in jail and, in her silence, finds community with her fellow inmates.

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Related Titles

By Andre Dubus III