Sometimes you just want a light fun, empty-calorie read, and in that regard I feel like this book really delivered. The characters are in college, and yet it is published by HarperCollins Children, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, which perhaps added to the lack of expectation and increased forgiveness. It reads very much like a Bollywood movie, there is dancing, angst, romance, redemption, culture, religion, and a sense that a certain arbitrary line of it all won’t be crossed to earn the book an R rating, and will keep it safe for Muslim high school teens. I think the book is fine for Muslim’s in 10th/11th grade and will be enjoyed by those in college (and up) as well. Over 429 pages the highly predictable tropes find their footing in their unique religious and cultural framing. The plot is perhaps a bit on the nose and overly serendipitous, but individually the characters show range and complexities that will resonate with readers. They have all made good and bad choices and continue to do so, but the big ones are largely in the past, and what we, the readers, get to see in many ways is them reaching for forgiveness in a contemporary whirlwind culmination of a wedding, overcoming addiction, a past felony, secrets, ex-significant others, familial expectations, loss, change, and school. The book is not preachy, although there is a like-able imam as a side character and he gets some advice in. The Muslim characters grapple with their faith as they would their culture; picking and choosing what to practice, but never really escaping it or wanting to completely abandon it either, it is just who they are and part of their identity. I enjoyed the book, reading it in two sittings and not feeling guilty that I lost sleep doing so, but like most rom-coms, the specifics and characters will blur over time. It has a lot of similarities with Hana Khan Carries On, while not having quite the religious adherance of S.K. Ali’s characters or rawness of Tahira Mafi’s. One thing that is uniquely it’s own, however, is the author’s beginning dedication, I don’t think I have ever read one quite so perfect, memorable, and possibly guilt causing. I laughed out loud!
Kiran’s mom passed away a year ago from ALS, and with her older sister Amira in law school at the time, she dealt with her mother’s illness and passing, largely alone as she additionally had just been ghosted by her first and only boyfriend, Deen. Now that her sister is about to graduate, and Kiran is about to start university, they can finally be roommates and reunite the family. Except, Amira has met someone, Faisal. Someone who was there for her when her mom died, and they are planning to move across the country to California in a few months. Devastated Kiran forces herself to be happy for her beloved older sister, until she finds out that Faisal is Deen’s older brother, and there are some gaping holes in his past. With her sisters future on the line, promises to her deceased mother haunting her, and a serious lack of communication abilities (more on that later), she is determined to uncover the truth about Faisal and maybe even Deen in the process.
Alternating point-of-view chapters give Deen a chance to provide his side to the story: the reason he had to disappear from Kiran’s life, what happened to his brother, and the unreasonableness of his family. As he struggles with his own conscious and stumbles around unsure of his own potential and worth, Deen comes across as selfish and arrogant, but ultimately only cares about his brother and making things up to him. He is determined that Deen deserves to be happy and he is committed to keeping Kiran from destroying it.
In typical desi fashion, appearances matter and while all the behind the scenes sleuthing, plotting, and fighting is taking place, on the surface, wedding plans are being made and dances choreographed.
The book includes pages of texts from three years ago between Deen and Kiran as they meet at Sunday school and sneak behind the mosque. There are also gaming dialogues between two anonymous fantasy characters that it is pretty obvious are Kiran and Deen. The reveal isn’t a shock to the readers, only the characters, and proves a nice way to see redeeming traits in characters who’s present real actions aren’t exactly endearing.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The OWN voice representation of Desi culture and Islam is not in addition to the story, it is woven in to the characters and the plot. The characters are largely liberal as the families are chill with dating, mixed gender hand shaking and dancing, and what not, but their Muslim upbringing is almost always close by. The characters say “astagfirulllah” after kissing, they acknowledge that some of the Muslims drink and some have left that lifestyle, they miss visiting the mosque, they recognize that they aren’t praying, etc., while many flags are present, they really aren’t sensationalized or given more than a single word in print. It strikes a pretty solid balance of showing where some thoughts or values come from, and where personal individuality takes over. I don’t think Muslims will be offended, nor non Muslims confused.
The biggest issue I had with the characters is that it really could have been resolved, all of it, with a few decent sit down conversations. Kiran and Amira, for example, are terrible at communicating and it blows this whole thing into a ginormous mess. Sure, there is no book if there is no drama, but they never fix this. So many lessons are acknowledged and the character arcs are shown or hinted at, this one, not so much, if at all. They didn’t talk when their mom was sick, when she died, about what they were going through, about their dad, about their future plans, about the wedding, about the concerns with Faisal, about Kiran and Deen having a past, about moving to California,…the list really is exhaustive, and it doesn’t seem to show that they acknowledge their role in escalating everything and vowing to be better. Sigh.
I read a digital ARC and it had a few spelling errors, it broke down the fourth wall in one paragraph, and I’m hoping the final copy will have resolved these issues. It mentions that typically the bride and/or her family pay for the wedding in Islam, and this is erroneous, culturally possibly: the brides family would cover the nikkah and ruhksuti, with the groom covering the walima, but to put it on religion is just incorrect.
Deen talks about “knowing women,” but it isn’t explored, and the groom is teased that he will be loosing his virginity card. The kisses aren’t usually described, it is just conveyed as something that happened. There is a bit of detail in the chemistry felt in the dances, but in true Bollywood fashion, they stop short of kissing. There is a stripper called to the bachelor party, but the characters are appalled and she is immediately escorted out. A religious character accidentally drinks alcohol and blacks out. There is profanity, not excessive, but conversationally. There is talk and repercussions of addiction to prescription drugs, a felony crime committed and punished for, deceit, lying, bullying, and physical altercations briefly recalled. There are parties attended, alcohol consumed,and at one point a female forcefully kisses an unconsenting male.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I’ve gone back and forth with suggesting to the high school book club advisor to consider this book. I think the right group of readers could really opine on the characters actions from the shy Faisal with a huge forgiving enduring heart to the nosey obnoxious Mona Khala, but there are some potential flags that might ultimately keep this book from being entirely Islamic School appropriate even for the highest grades. Ahh, I’ll keep you posted on what I decide.