This book is a Muslim YA romcom OWN voice written by a Muslim male. Woah, right? And the actual story, sigh (blush) I enjoyed it, and part of me is disappointed in myself for how much I enjoyed it. Most of the characters are Muslim and all over the spectrum in their religiosity so to speak, there are a lot of jokes at the expense of tenants in Islam and trivializing of certain concepts which really isn’t something to celebrate, but it reads real and there is a lot of Islam that is front and center and deep and though provoking. For most non Muslim readers, I’m sure 15 or 16 and up would be fine with the content and 353 page length, but as a former Islamic School Librarian, I’d have to reserve recommendations to college age. The protagonist is 19, there is talk of sex, but not crass, the main female character has a past that includes a sex tape, and there is a lot of language, but its also really funny and really relatable and really sweet and takes place in high school.
Danyal is a pretty face, but he isn’t very bright. He goes to an elite private school though somehow, and while he is admittedly dingy, he is also very kind, innocent and generous. He was held back at some point in school and is 19 as a senior in high school. He works in a French restaurant and dreams of being a chef. He has no desire to go to college and as the only son of Pakistani immigrants, they are not thrilled with their son’t future plans. Danyal is pretty chill about it though and his mom wants to arrange his marriage, and he is willing, although he is crazy in love with his friend’s twin sister. He is religious and hasn’t really broken any of the Islamic relationship rules, he prays fajr, and just kinda floats through life doing the best he can and forgiving himself and others when they mess up.
When his mom arranges a meeting with Bisma he is willing to get to know if they are a match. She however, fully discloses her past to him when they head out for coffee, which involves her rebelling, once a few years earlier, against her father and going to a party, further rebelling and getting drunk and then making the poor and regrettable choice to sleep with someone. To make matters worse, the event was video taped and spread around the community forcing the family to move. Bisma is pretty religious and really studious and really sorry, but her father and most community people don’t let it go. Danyal thinks that is stupid, one mistake shouldn’t haunt her forever, unfortunately he doesn’t think chivalry and pity are enough of a reason to marry her as he doesn’t think they are meant for each other. Basically, he is still really crushing on Kaval. So he and Bisma decide to be friends.
When Danyal’s history teacher in a fit of spite nominates Danyal for a prestigious Renaissance Man competition, Danyal calls on Bisma for help. The topic is Winston Churchill, the beloved British leader, but Danyal quickly learns he is not beloved by most Indian subcontinent people. Kaval offers to help so that Danyal can win the competition, impress her parents and then maybe give them a chance. But, suddenly Danyal doesn’t know if that is what he wants. He wants to be himself, he wants to be accepted, he wants Bisma.
WHY I LIKE IT:
You know how it is going to end, you don’t know entirely how it is going to get there, but you know where it is headed, yet the book is still compelling and fun. Between the banter of the religious friend, and the no longer religious friend, the advice the French Chef bestows on Danyal and Danyal’s complete and utter cluelessness to everything, the book is really warm and the characters really like-able. I dislike the stereotype of the “religious” character, but the other side characters are better developed.
On occasion I think Danyal’s stupidity is over done, he isn’t an idiot, he just isn’t book smart. So when he doesn’t know what “break a leg” implies for example, it seems a tiny bit off. I know his friends say he isn’t funny, but I think he is hilarious, especially with his commentary on the Desi community. “It is the curse of brown boys everywhere. We either die young or we live long enough to see ourselves become uncles.”
The role of Islam is incredibly prominent, and the characters understand what it means to be Muslim differently. Sometime I agreed with them, sometimes I didn’t, sometimes the characters didn’t agree with each other, sometimes they did. There is a lot to think about: destiny, Allah’s mercy, Qalb-e-saleem (a pure heart), caring for the less fortunate. Even politically there is a strong thread of colonialism, which the characters wrestle with and with being immigrant’s children. There is a lot packed in, but it flows so smooth and the writing rich with authenticity, that quite often I would laugh out loud and read various lines to my young children.
Talk of sex and losing virginity, but not detailed, just stated. The chef is a lesbian. There is lots of language including the F word, not thrown in effortlessly, usually for a reason, and often reprimanded. There are a few kisses on the cheek and lips between Danyal and Bisma, but in a Disney princess movie sort of way.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Not for middle or even high school book club. I don’t think that it is a completely “halal” romance story, but I think I wouldn’t be concerned if juniors and seniors were reading it, I think they would love it, and I might just have a few that I want to suggest it to…