Sunday, 6 September 2020

#CBR12 Book 55: "Ayesha at Last" by Uzma Jalaluddin

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been overtaken by a demanding teaching job. Her boisterous Muslim family, and numerous (interfering) aunties, are professional naggers. And her flighty young cousin, about to reject her one hundredth marriage proposal, is a constant reminder that Ayesha is still single.

Ayesha might be a little lonely, but the one thing she doesn't want is an arranged marriage. And then she meets Khalid... How could a man so conservative and judgmental (and, yes, smart and annoyingly handsome) have wormed his way into her thoughts so quickly?

As for Khalid, he's happy the way he is; his mother will find him a suitable bride. But why can't he get the captivating, outspoken Ayesha out of his mind? They're far too different to be a good match, surely...

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen must be one of the most popular classic novels to retell by modern authors. There are contemporary retellings, like Bridget Jones' Diary (the more comical), Eligible (the serious literary take), there are YA versions, like Pride and Prom and Prejudice. There are fantasy versions, like Heartstone or horror ones, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Then there are the contemporary retellings set in different cultures than the original, like Unmarriageable; Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors, and this one. 

Uzma Jalaluddin has set her modern retelling of the classic romance in Canada, with the headstrong and loyal Eliza Bennett becoming the hardworking Ayesha Shamsi, whose family (consisting of a grieving mother, ambitious programmer brother, and Ayesha) living with loving grandparents and feeling indebted to their richer relatives who helped them move to Canada after the unfortunate death of Ayesha's father. Because of both the financial and emotional debt to her aunt and uncle, Ayesha has trained as a teacher and is determined to make this career work, even though she struggles as a substitute teacher and her true passion is beat poetry. Having seen how much her mother still grieves the death of her father, Ayesha's not sure she ever wants to get married, but she can't help but be a bit jealous of all the attention her younger cousin (the Lydia character) is getting with her multiple suitors. 

Through a series of coincidences, Ayesha ends up being mistaken for her younger cousin when volunteering for a project at the local mosque. That's also the second time she meets Khalid, who upon their first encounter seemed cold, judgemental, and condescending. As in the original novel, the couple's first encounter is very unfortunate, and then they gradually warm up to one another once they get to know each other better. The fact that Khalid doesn't actually know Ayesha's real name and believes her to be her younger cousin definitely creates some complications as the story progresses, as does the fact that his ambitious, snobbish mother manages to manipulate the situation so that Khalid ends up engaged to Ayesha's actual cousin. 

This works well as an #ownvoices story, as Jalaluddin herself is Muslim, with great familiarity with the various cultures and traditions she's describing. She hasn't kept all of the story beats, nor all the same characters from the original novel. Ayesha has just the one brother, no sisters. The Lydia character is her rebellious cousin, not her sister. There is a Wickham parallel, who is pretty much as dastardly as his classic counterpart. The closest we get to Lady Catherine de Burgh is Khalid's mother. 

I think this book works better precisely because it doesn't try to retell Pride and Prejudice exactly, just moved to a modern, mostly Muslim environment. Jalaluddin's novel also looks at different views of what it means to be a good and dutiful daughter, the expectations of Muslim society on both men and women, the cultural clashes between different cultures in a modern city, the racism and intolerance still present towards Muslims in certain circles of Western society. 

This is Jaluluddin's debut novel, and Goodreads tells me she has a new 'rom com' loosely retelling You've Got Mail out next year. Based on this, I'll absolutely put it on my "To check out" list. 

Judging a book by its cover: I think this cover is really pretty. The golden background, the purple hijab, flowing over the page like a river, the pink lips which look good with but isn't exactly the same as the headscarf. The font used for the title. I prefer it to the alternate cover, which is pale blue. It also has a woman's head in profile, but as a dark silhouette, but neither the colour choices, nor the layout appeal to me as much. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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