Dueling Review, Rant, Recommended Read

Dueling Review: Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin (2019)

If Holly were to review this book, she would call it a Recommended Read. If Erin were to review this book, she would write a Rant. Clearly, we needed to review this book together.

Welcome to Dueling Reviews.

Moderated by Ingrid, who stirs the pot.

Erin’s Take:

Heat Factor: No heat in the traditional sense, but Khalid and Ayesha throw sparks

Character Chemistry: There’s a lot of “I shouldn’t but I still want” between these two

Plot: Pride and Prejudice retelling from a Muslim immigrant viewpoint

Overall: My rage at some of the plot points really detracted from the romance

Holly’s Take:

Heat Factor: Very chaste

Character Chemistry: Who knew that a brush of the finger tips could be so sexy?

Plot: Pride and Prejudice, but Muslim, with some extra side plots to make the central relationship more complicated

Overall: Enjoyable

Erin, summarize the book. 

Erin: It is a contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice with a Muslim-immigrants-in-Canada bent.

Holly, summarize the book.

Holly: What Erin said, but there’s also an extra dishonest beginnings, mistaken identity subplot going on to make things a little bit different.

Erin, describe the relationship between the main characters.

E: Kind of weird? It’s modeled on Pride and Prejudice, but they live across the street from one another. One day he sees her in a purple hijab and thinks she’s terribly interesting. Then they end up meeting by chance at the mosque, and he thinks she’s completely ridiculous and that his first impression of her was wrong, and she thinks he’s a huge snob.

H: You forgot about the part at the bar.

E: Right!! He saw her at the bar and he completely disapproved of her being there because a good Muslim girl would NEVER, and she’s drinking a Shirley Temple and it’s just SCANDALOUS.

H: And at the bar she performs some slam poetry and it’s a huge put down to him. So that’s their auspicious beginning.

E: And then they’re put together in this forced proximity thing at the mosque, which starts the mistaken identity thread. 

Holly, describe the relationship between the main characters.

H: Okay, so – there are two aspects to their relationship. There’s the relationship development, which is enemies to lovers. We get that through the forced proximity, which Erin mentioned. And then there’s the chemistry, which I’ll cover.

The chemistry between them, once they start spending time together, is just really sexually fraught even though they don’t even touch each other. In one particularly great scene, Ayesha brushes some crumbs off of Khalid’s beard, and he touches her hand. That’s all that happens, but it’s so sexy in its minimalism. They’re both like, OMG this is the sexiest thing that’s ever happened to me, and as a reader I was like, OMG, this is the sexiest thing that’s ever happened. So basically the chemistry between them is really – 

E: For context, he won’t shake his boss’s hand because she’s a woman. He does not touch women.

H: So these really small moments become very fraught with meaning.

How well does Ayesha at Last work as a P&P retelling? In what ways does it excel, and where does it fall short?

E: Well Holly is the expert in P&P retellings, but I would say, in my experience, it’s par for the course. It has that enemies to lovers trope and those difficult family dynamics like P&P. Jalaluddin even has a little Wickham. If you were reading this book and didn’t know it was a P&P retelling and you had no familiarity with P&P, you might not realize it is a retelling, but if you have any familiarity with P&P, you would definitely know that’s what this story is.

Where does it excel? With the chemistry and the interpersonal dynamics between Khalid and Ayesha. Their personal dynamics aside from whatever’s happening in the community is what made me enjoy the read. As for the rest–I got really mad about a number of other things, like the worst HR manager in the history of the universe, the mistaken identity, his mother, etc. 

Arranged marriages? What is the book’s stance?

H: To give some background:  Khalid, the whole time, is thinking that his mother is going to arrange his marriage, and I think Ayesha also thinks she’s going to have a marriage arranged for her. So when they meet and get over their enemies thing and start to have a relationship, there’s sort of a question about whether an arranged marriage actually is the best because maybe they want to choose each other, rather than have a spouse chosen for them by their families. 

The other thing that’s going on in this book is that Khalid’s older sister was shipped off to India when he was 14 and she was 18 or so, and she was married off in an arranged marriage. To a stranger. In a foreign country. And she has not spoken to their mother since then, nor come home to Canada since then. So her arranged marriage is shown as being this gross abuse of power, and it seems that the reader should extrapolate from this that arranged marriages are terrible.

E: The way it’s written in most of the story, she sounds miserable.

H: Exactly. And then! Spoiler – in the end, she comes back to Canada with her husband and is grateful for the experience of being sent off to India as an 18-year-old, and then the hero decides no, just kidding, your parents know best after all.

E: No, I didn’t have that read of the meaning of her relationship. It allowed the hero to reevaluate his baseline. Because by the time he and his sister have this conversation, he had come to the conclusion–with everything that had happened to him because his mom was terrible and manipulative–that everything he thought was wrong. He realized he wanted to marry Ayesha, and it’s not like he changes his mind about that because his sister came home. He just realized that it works sometimes but it’s not for him. I did not get an “oh, arranged marriages are really good” vibe after this. The overall arranged marriage thing and the Wickham thing, and the manipulation thing implies that arranged marriages are bad. The ending getting thrown in there was…

H: It undermined what had been going on before. This is why I felt weird about it. I guess.

E: Yes.

Would you categorize this as an “inspirational” or “religious” romance?

E: The arranged marriage aspect was a driving force of the narrative, because it was how the hero expected his life to play out and he has this tendency to be relatively inflexible. Ayesha came from a much more…assimilated standpoint. She had a job, was active in the mosque, was a generally good Muslim girl. She was also one of the characters who made comments about what the Khalid looked like. She was more of an acculturated Canadian. So the question of whether arranged marriage is good or bad came up between them, and they discussed whether it was a good or bad thing. They didn’t so much discuss religion. I just don’t think it’s a religious novel. 

But is it a religious ROMANCE?

E: No. Because while Islam is central to the story, it’s primarily discussed. It’s not an overtly accepted part of the story. In the Christian books I’ve read, it’s just part of the story: everyone is praying before meals, the characters are constantly considering their relationship to God in the context of what’s happening, and all the characters are assumed to be Christian.

H: The reason I brought up this question is that there are a lot of questions about what does it mean to be a “good Muslim” in this time and place. And the overall ethos of this book is perhaps a little more conservative than the novels we generally read.

E: This is true. Jalaluddin does a really good job of considering the many ways being Muslim looks like.

H: She does a good job of this, and there’s no proselytizing; in some Christian romances I read there’s some proselytizing (to the reader) going on.

Setting aside the literary side of things, how well did you think this worked as a romance? Did you buy the chemistry between Ayesha and Khalid?

E: This is a really tame romance. But I agree with Holly, that fact that there is this sort of…no physical interaction whatsoever made the physical interaction when it did happen MUCH more thrilling than it would otherwise be. I wanted them to get together…I wanted them to stop getting in their own way and just get together already. I got so frustrated that he felt he had to go through with his arranged marriage just so he could avoid upsetting the apple cart.

H: I mean I think I already made my point clear about how excellent the chemistry was.

E: It didn’t really give me butterflies.

H: The beard thing…I mean…I was fanning myself a little bit.

How do you get over gross incompetence in an HR pro as a plot device?

H: So I agree with Erin that this was a definite weak point in the book. Khalid’s bigoted boss has nothing good about her; and frankly, someone who had successfully climbed the corporate ladder to such an extent would probably have a better handle on how to behave in order to avoid a discrimination lawsuit. Like, she’s terrible.

E: The minute she opens her mouth she’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. The fact that the woman in charge of HR for the region doesn’t immediately raise concerns to corporate HQ is mind boggling.

H: But, I think the reason I was able to get over it is because the hero is a member of a minority religion and other Muslim characters tell him he looks like a terrorist…so having this almost cartoonishly overdrawn character meant that the author was able to play around with the theme of prejudice in kind of a different way than you’d see in other P&P retellings. Unlike classic Darcy, whose rigidity stems from superiority as a wealthy man in a society with strict class and gender hierarchies, Khalid’s adherence to faith does not necessarily make his life easier; he stands out in a crowd, and the fact that he won’t shake hands with his female boss does not make him any friends.

How can you sympathize with Khalid refusing to stop an engagement that he realizes is so wrong for him because of “honor” in a modern narrative?

H: He is extremely devout, and therefore quite rigid in his beliefs. He’s got that Darcy thing – he’s stoic and has trouble admitting when he’s wrong. So he can’t admit that maybe he’s wrong about this, and if he’s wrong about this, than maybe he’s wrong about a lot of things that challenge the foundation of his beliefs. In fact, much of the internal conflict of his story stems from him questioning whether his rigid beliefs are in fact right for him. 

But like, sometimes it just takes people a longer time to get there. Going against this arranged marriage isn’t just saying, nah I’m not going on this blind date, it’s going against his whole community and where he thinks he needs to be.

E: I think the part that I had trouble with is when he’s already entered into the engagement, and I think by this point they’ve even gone through the engagement party. He’s already decided he’s going to do the arranged marriage. And then he realizes after having committed to it that it’s not actually the right choice for him, but he still thinks he needs to do it because not doing it is just too disruptive. I feel like it took too long for him to decide that maybe he made the wrong decision.

H: The importance of community is huge to him, it’s not just about his own personal happiness. It’s about saving face for his mother and the public commitments he made to this other woman. It’s about more than just him.

Closing Comments – Erin

E: I’m not sure that I’m a good audience for P&P retellings…I was prepared to be really invested in the narrative and,  like I said, I was excited about Khalid’s relationship with Ayesha and how that developed over time. I just got really bogged down by those frustrating tangential details that Holly framed as extra weaker plot points. All these secondary characters were just–I didn’t think they strengthened the narrative. They just catered to the broader P&P narrivative. Maybe this would have been better as an enemies to lovers instead of specifically a P&P retelling.

Closing Comments – Holly

H:I agree with that assessment. The weakest parts of this book are the parts the author puts in so that Ayesha at Last  tracks to P&P so closely. In addition to everything Erin said, the Mr. Collins thing…he was funny but it just made no sense.

E: Well, and with P&P retellings they track Lydia and Wickham and even Mr. Collins, but there’s a limit to what they can do with all the original characters. They never put them all in, so why do they choose some and not others?.

H: Yeah, so some of the things that make it a P&P retelling actually weaken it as a book. Especially the Wickham story. Tarek is a much more sympathetic than the usual Wickham character. He is not a complete villain, which makes him more interesting. But then at the end I thought his punishment was out-of-control harsh. What he did was bad (this is debatable), but what Khalid did in retaliation literally puts his life in danger. 

I think what this book does really well is…it’s a really interesting nuanced telling of devout Muslim characters who aren’t caricatures. Who are dynamic and struggle through their faith and their lives. And seeing Khalid and Ayesha come together at the end is so emotionally satisfying.

Buy Now: Amazon

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