First Impressions (are always wrong)
Ayesha at Last
in a nutshell A thoughtful twenty-six year old spinster, a stubborn young man, silly cousins and aunts, mistaken identities, arranged marriages, misunderstandings and love - it's not a soap opera, it's a rewriting of Pride and Prejudice set within a Muslim community in Toronto. Will our two lovers find a way to soften and change, overcome prejudices and first impressions in order to be happily ever after?
why? Entertaining, engaging, educational (about matters of the heart).
Ayesha knew she shouldn't dawdle in the car. The "Bored Aunty Brigade," as she had nicknamed her gossipy desi neighbours, were likely peering through their windows right now.
Ayesha Shamsi took her sweet time going inside, she imagined them saying. Up to no good, no husband yet, who will marry her now? Cluck, cluck, cluck.
She flung open the car door, fake smile plastered to her face. Let them stare. She was too old to care what the Aunty Brigade thought of her!
I have been going through some kind of schizo-reading crisis, in that I am chock full of enthusiasm about reading a newly-discovered book, but then find the effort of sustaining the reading (and the enthusiasm) too much, whilst at the same time secretly brooding the delusion that I have read the best already, and perhaps should only re-read from now on (which sends me right back into a book discovery frenzy). Finally, thankfully, I landed on this novel and happily settled. It is a well-paced, steady read, that allows you to gradually grow fond of the two main characters, whose struggles to discover their own boundaries and aspirations before forming a serious attachment are ultimately very relatable.
I had purchased this book a while ago, after reading very positive reviews, which all underlined in one way or another the religious aspect of this rewriting of Pride and Prejudice. I am well aware that I am white, European and Catholic-raised, so I was wary of relishing the novel as religious picturesque or edifyingly educational about Islam. The portrayal of religious beliefs in the novel prevented me from falling into that trap, as none of the main characters are caricatures designed for glamour or propaganda. Faith is an important issue for Ayesha-Elizabeth and Khalid-Darcy, something that is not often the case with contemporary fictional protagonists, even though it is for many young and not so young people around the world, which made reading the novel somehow refreshing and significant, even if it is a lighthearted read. Although my days of observance are behind me, I found the characters' struggles to integrate their beliefs into their lifestyle and against the backdrop of society's expectations a very relevant one, precisely because words like 'faith' and 'values' seem to belong to an old-fashioned world, while in fact they inform everyone's life - whether or not we realise it.
In terms of plot, I liked the fact that the novel is a recognisable rewriting of Pride and Prejudice but one that adapts and takes liberties with both characters and storylines. On the other hand, I didn't especially appreciate the word-for-word quotes of key exchanges between Elizabeth and Darcy in the mouth of Ayesha and Khalid, because they felt contrived. What I liked best, however, is the fact that Jalaluddin's rewriting stays true to what in my view is the central point made by Austen's novel, namely that before finding happiness in love one needs knowledge of, and centredness in, oneself (I would have called it both novels' message if only I could have overcome my aversion to the term). Perhaps this last aspect would not matter to a non-Austen fan, but it does to me. Jane Austen was my first literary love at the start of my adolescence, and has remained one of my most beloved writers. Although Pride and Prejudice may not be the Austen's novel that elicits my strongest response, I think it has a right to be considered her masterpiece in terms of character development, because it is pretty much her only novel, except to an extent for Persuasion, where both woman and, importantly, man have to undergo a change before they can form a relationship with each other. This is an aspect that Jalaluddin takes up and expands, as the novel opens with Khalid's viewpoint and it is he who has to do the most growing and changing.
One element that differs in the two works is the extent and tone of social critique. Jalaluddin does expose two characters to ridicule and right if mild punishment - Khalid's mother Farzana, the old-fashioned extremist Muslim, arranged-marriage fanatic who ends up forsaken and exposed in front of the whole community (a harsher treatment than Lady Catherine de Bourgh ever gets), and Sheila the shark, Khalid's boss who manages to have him fired only to see her twelve-million dollar business client fire her in turn and hire Khalid solo instead. Overall, however, the jabs at fools and follies found in Ayesha at Last are much lighter and sparser than Austen's unrelenting, playful, pungent targeting of society and its flawed members and conventions (so on point that W.H. Auden rhymes that next to this "English spinster of the middle-class", in truth, "Joyce seems innocent as grass"). I shall stop here and apologise for this apologetics of Austen, whom I feel is often underrated and sometimes excluded from academic syllabi for no good reason other than her reputation as an ante litteram 'chick lit' writer - and 'chick lit' itself may need a reassessment. But enough and back to Ayesha at Last.
Amongst all the positives, there is one marginal aspect that I found deeply annoying, that is the utterly negative portrayal of teaching put forth in the novel. As a teacher myself I found it hard to overlook this. The representation of teaching as a second best, as a half-hearted choice is indeed one of my pet peeves, as I feel few jobs are as targeted as teaching in the media and in people's views at large. It is true that teaching plays a marginal role in the novel and that Ayesha is a new substitute teacher who chose the career only to please her family in an attempt to put aside her socially extravagant, somehow improper aspirations to be a poet. Yet, the scenes when substitute teaching is represented as putting on an endless stream of commercial movies reinforce the stereotype that teaching is the realm of laziness and most teachers desperate workers left with no alternatives. I have known plenty of substitute teachers, and they do not just press play on a film. Even the difficulties Ayesha encounters - yes, teaching is demanding and can definitely be very hard! - never seem to be meaningful, the pupils just shadow-like devils causing problems for meanness's or boredom's sake. In a nutshell, school life is consistently portrayed as meaningless drudgery, with teachers even less motivated than students - anything but what school life and teachers are in most schools. The fact that Ayesha quits teaching is also ambivalent - clearly it wasn't for her, so teaching is not intrinsically bad, but bad for her, yet here is another (fictional) person quitting teaching for greener pastures, leaving it to the losers who have nothing better or else to do.
I wouldn't like to close my review on a negative note, though, because overall I greatly enjoyed this novel and I am glad I bought the book on a whim. It fits perfectly into my self-justifying explanation that a book is always the best of purchases, even better if it is second-hand, because you never know when the time might come for a story to speak to you as this one did to me. I am very glad I read Ayesha at Last just when I did, and that I can now recommend it to you out there. Enjoy and please leave a comment if you have or will read it!