Reviewed by Macy A.
AYESHA AT LAST
By Uzma Jalaluddin
368 pages. Berkley.
A mix of giving up on a dream in exchange for security, dealing with a bad boss, crazy relatives, a case of mistaken identity, and old family secrets already reads like the kickass start of a great romance novel. But add in the cultural context of the Canadian-Indian Muslim immigrant experience and you’ve got yourself the gem that is Ayesha at Last, Uzma Jalaluddin’s debut novel.
Ayesha Shamsi dreamt of becoming a poet, but put that aside to work as a substitute teacher to pay back the uncle who sent her to college. She’s also almost thirty years old and has never had a boyfriend, but refuses to have an arranged marriage. On the other hand, we have Khalid Mirza: an IT worker with the Worst Boss Ever that is hell-bent on kicking him out because he’s Muslim. He’s never had a girlfriend either, but that’s not a problem because his overbearing mother will arrange his marriage for him. Ayesha and Khalid’s first meeting ends in disaster, but as they’re thrown together again to organize the mosque’s conference (with the added complication that Khalid thinks Ayesha is her cousin Hafsa), they learn more about each other and discover that love isn’t an either-or scenario.
As a whole, Ayesha at Last is a great read. It’s got the right combination of romance and drama, and the drama and conflict don’t feel contrived. Instead, the conflict comes naturally because of who the characters are and their motivations. Ayesha’s more modern take on faith and tradition clashes with Khalid’s taking comfort in what’s tried and tested. Hafsa’s gullibility and pride overtaking common sense. Farzana’s (Khalid’s mother) dictatorial nature pushing everyone she loves away from her. The only thing that felt slightly out of place was the side story of Zareena, Khalid’s sister.
This leads me to the best part of the novel: the characters. Each character, from Ayesha and Khalid to their family members, feels real and fully formed. Even Khalid’s racist boss feels real and not a caricature.
Another thing I loved about Ayesha at Last is how Ms. Jalaluddin established Indian Muslim culture so seamlessly. Ms. Jalaluddin didn’t see herself or her experiences in the books she read growing up, so she wrote her own. The end result is a novel that’s grounded, where things just are. There are no lengthy explanations. Readers not familiar with the culture learn as the story goes along, not through info dumps. The characters are Canadian-Indian Muslim immigrants and while their faith makes up a big part of who they are, that’s not all that they are.
All in all, Ayesha at Last is highly recommended for those who appreciate two grown adults working through their issues, compromising where they can, and taking a firm stand against what they can’t compromise.
Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin is available at Fully Booked branches and Fully Booked Online.
Macy Añonuevo is a sustainability professional, writer, marine science nerd, and geek who loves to eat, travel, talk about science, and take pictures of stuff. She also has way too many books in her to-read pile, and is afraid she’ll never read them all. You can find her on Instagram @theislandergirl at www.theislandergirl.com.
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