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In Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, Marjane Satrapi resumes the autobiographical account of her life that she began in Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. The earlier book ended in 1984 with fourteen-year-old “Marji” tearfully saying goodbye to her mother and father at the Tehran airport after her parents decided it would be safer for her go to school in Vienna than to remain in Iran and live under a repressive regime while the country engaged in a bitter war with Iraq.  As Persepolis 2 begins, Marji is in Vienna preparing to enter a French-language school to resume her studies, but she is not living with the émigré family of her mother’s best friend, Zozo, as was planned. Zozo didn’t want Marji living with her family, so she quickly moved Marji to a boarding house run by Catholic nuns, where Marji knows no one and feels very alone.

Marji’s displacement to a boarding house is just the first of many challenges that strong-spirited but vulnerable Marji will face in Vienna over the next four years as she navigates being a teen-aged refugee adjusting from traditionalist Iran to the very Western city of Vienna. In the second half of Persepolis 2, Marji will return to Tehran and face the reverse challenge: she will try to readjust to life back in Iran after four formative years in Vienna. These dual challenges will take a heavy toll on Marji’s psyche as well as severely test, strain, and in some cases destroy her relationships with her family and friends—including her parents, her grandmother, fellow students, childhood acquaintances, boyfriends, and her fiancé and eventual husband. As Marji puts it: “I was a Westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the West. I had no identity. I didn’t even know why I was living.”

Marji’s stay at the Viennese boarding house gets off to a mixed start. Her roommate, Lucia, is a friendly girl from the Tyrol region of Austria, but communication is an issue since Marji and Lucia don’t share a common language and because Lucia is somewhat oblivious to Marji’s sensitivities. Her sensitivities are tested by the communal living arrangements, which Marji has trouble adjusting to after her comfortable home life with her well-off parents. But Lucia comes to Marji’s rescue when she invites her to spend Christmas break with her hospitable family in Tyrol. During the next school break, Marji stays at the boarding house and has a run-in with the mother superior that results in Marji getting kicked out. The mother superior insults Marji’s Iranian heritage, and Marji responds with an insult questioning the nuns’ virtue. 

At school, Marji experiences ups and downs as well. After being ignored by the other students, Marji gains some popularity with her mathematical and tutoring abilities. Her artistic talents also garner attention when she draws caricatures of the teachers. But it’s Marji’s status as a refugee who has “known war” that attracts a set of friends who give Marji her first taste of belonging in Vienna. The group is led by an older French girl named Julie, and its most conspicuous member is a mildly obnoxious punk boy named Momo who Marji tolerates through gritted teeth as he spouts pseudo-intellectual ideas.

After Marji is evicted by the nuns, Julie and her mother Armelle invite her to live with them and share Julie’s bedroom. Marji, who comes from a society that reveres parents, and who deeply misses her own mother, is shocked to see Julie ignore and disrespect Armelle. Marji spends time with Armelle and likes her, especially when she learns that Armelle knows Iranian culture, which is rare among Westerners. Julie’s worldliness (she’s sexually active and takes birth control pills) has a big impact on Marji, who envies and judges Julie simultaneously. While Armelle is traveling, Julie throws a party that is unlike any Marji has ever seen. Rather than eating or talking, the guests smoke and make out. When one guest stays and has sex with Julie, an astonished Marji calls it her first step into being assimilated into Western culture. 

Under her friend’s influence, Marji increasingly adopts the ways of Western youth and culture and worries that she’s losing her Iranian identity. At the same time, Marji undergoes significant physical changes in a growth spurt. She changes her hair, make-up, and clothes style as well. Trying to fit in, Marji now smokes and does drugs. When Julie and Armelle move away from Vienna, Marji sublets a room in a house. During that time, the now sixteen-year-old Marji is visited by her mother. Marji, who now towers over her mother, limits what she tells her mother about her life in Vienna, and her mother doesn’t divulge much about what her family’s life is like back in Iran either. The visit gives Marji a much-needed boost that at least temporarily forestalls more emotional spiraling. 

Marji takes a room in the home of a “Frau Doctor Heller,” a horrible person who adds stress to Marji’s life. Marji finds some solace in being with her boyfriend, a student named Markus. They will date for two years, but it’s never the idyllic relationship Marji wants. After Markus’s mother insults Marji by saying that she’s using him to get a passport, and then cuts off Markus’s allowance, Marji has to finance their dates. Marji also buys the drugs they smoke together, an arrangement that leads to Marji buying and then reselling drugs to other students at their school. Still, Marji grows increasingly dependent on Marcus for emotional support. Marji’s drug dealing ends when the school principal threatens her with expulsion. Her relationship with Markus also ends abruptly when she finds him in bed with another girl.

At this moment of extreme emotional vulnerability, and with right-wing, anti-immigrant sentiments on the rise in Austria, Marji’s landlady accuses her of theft. Marji storms out and spends the next two months on the streets until she ends up in a hospital. Soon after, her parents call and arrange for her to come back to Iran. Marji puts on a veil for the first time in four years and heads to the airport.

When Marji returns to Iran in 1988, the long war with Iraq has ended, but the fundamentalist Islamic regime continues to oppress Iranians with strict social and religious rules and severe punishments. Still recovering from her breakdown in Vienna, Marji tries to recede into the shadows, but her parents, family, and old friends won’t allow it, and Marji is gradually coaxed back into social interactions. Marji’s relationship with her parents has matured, but she still relies on them for advice and for emotional and financial support. Marji’s close relationship with her grandmother resumes, although there is a period when her grandmother won’t speak to her after Marji commits a selfish act that offends her.

Marji won’t mention her problems in Vienna since she feels deep guilt over having fled Iran while others faced the war and other difficulties. Marji feels that her problems in Vienna were inconsequential in comparison. Marji is keenly aware that Iran changed for the worse while she was away. Reminders of the war are everywhere, and the people are now too tired and fearful to stand up to the authorities. Women have it particularly bad in male-dominated Iran, and Marji has difficulty tolerating her old friends who seem vapid and obsessed with Western superficialities, at least in private. Publicly, women are obliged to hide themselves both physically (behind the veil) and intellectually.

Marji’s mother persuades her to seek the help of a psychoanalyst, and Marji tries several before one suggests that she take medication to combat her depression. The anti-depressants make her feel more hopeless, and Marji attempts suicide by swallowing a lot of pills. When Marji unexpectedly survives, she decides it’s a sign that she needs to make big changes in her life, so she alters her look, takes up aerobics, and feels vital for the first time in years. She goes to a party where she meets Reza, an ex-soldier who is now an artist. They’ll eventually marry, but first they decide to go back to school. 

Like all institutions in Iran, the art school that Marji and Reza attend is tightly controlled by the regime. Over time, the couple become part of a faction of students that react to the repression by violating rules on social behavior in private places—particularly by holding alcohol-fueled parties at each other’s homes. The parties are sometimes raided, resulting in arrests and stiff fines that the students’ parents must pay. When a friend of Marji and Reza’s dies in a fall while fleeing the authorities after a raid, Reza vows to stop going to parties, but Marji decides to party more.  Marji and Reza haven’t ever been a very compatible couple, and they argue endlessly. For a while, Marji chooses to celebrate their differences as opposites attracting, but their rifts only increase over time.

In spite of their disagreements, when Reza proposes to Marji she accepts. Marji’s father supports this arrangement even though he believes they aren’t compatible, since he knows that living together is the only way couples can get to know each other in their repressive society. Marji’s parents throw a huge wedding for their only daughter, but when Marji and Reza continue to disagree, Marji realizes their marriage is probably doomed. They stay married, although unhappily and with separate bedrooms, as they continue at school. Toward the end of their four-year program, Marji and Reza are assigned to work together on the final project. For seven months they happily collaborate without arguing on an ambitious theme park plan for Tehran based on figures from Persian mythology. Once the plan is completed and earns them perfect scores, Marji tries to make the plan a reality. But the authorities reject the plan because it is Persian, not Islamic. Marji realizes that she and Reza must divorce, and she must leave Iran.

Marji informs her parents, and they agree. Her father reflects by saying that as Iranians they are crushed, “not only by the government, but by the weight of our own traditions.” Marji is accepted into an arts program in Strasbourg, France, then must wait three months for a student visa. She cherishes her final months with her mother, father, and grandmother in the country that she instinctively loves but cannot remain in. This story ends like the prior book, with Marji at the Tehran airport saying goodbye to her family.