Ayesha At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
After years of school and months of job hunting, Ayesha finally got a job substitute teaching high schoolers—a sensible choice but one that makes her heart sink every time she gets into the classroom. Khalid is entranced by the girl in the purple hijab, but too shy to approach her (plus, his mother will arrange his marriage for him)—and he is shocked when he sees her in a bar/lounge. Their lives keep getting thrown together by chance, and sparks fly…until a devious plot has Khalid engaged to Ayesha’s frivolous cousin Hafsa.
I absolutely adored this loose retelling of Pride and Prejudice.
I’m calling it now: I think that this is 2019’s The Kiss Quotient.
It is that good, and I’m going to try to assemble my muddled thoughts into something resembling a coherent review.
While the main romance between Ayesha and Khalid was center stage, the parallels to Pride and Prejudice were minimal. Throughout much of the first 3/4 of the book, I was kinda wondering where the comparisons would come into play and was disappointed that Ayesha At Last was being compared to Jane Austen when it really would have been better standing on its own—but then the final 1/4 hit and the parallels synched right up.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are played by Ayesha’s uncle and aunt, and her cousins stand in for Lizzy’s sisters—right up with Hafsa as spoiled Lydia and Ayesha as semi-spinster Lizzy. There is a very awkward marriage proposal and a heartfelt apology letter and in true Shakespearian comedy fashion there is not one but three weddings/engagements. Additionally, there is a Mr. Wickham (no spoilers on who that is although it’s fairly obvious), who is connected to Khalid and his mysterious family backstory.
Where the similarities end is where the story really shines, however. There are three main plots—Ayesha feeling her soul die at the high school, Khalid struggling with his bigoted new boss, and the Muslims in Action youth convention that will lift the ailing mosque out of its debt. This latter point brings Ayesha and Khalid together, and they must work to turn a thousand person event into a blockbuster in less than a month’s time—by tag-teaming a bird and book (Twitter and Facebook, thank you for this hilarity, Imam Abdul Bari) publicity campaign on the internet (dammit I can’t remember what he called it). The downside to this convention? Ayesha is masquerading as her cousin Hafsa, the real event planner (who is off galavanting at the mall with her boy toy).
Not only is Ayesha literally #goals because of her assertiveness (which grows over the course of the book), love for her family and community, and her sense of humor, but all of the secondary characters (minus one or two) are hilarious, heartwarming and amazing.
Khalid was more of a blank space, but the reasons for why Mr. Darcy is so…Darcy-ish become really clear when you meet his mother. Yikes spikes. Anywho, Khalid does a lot of growing throughout the book, and a lot of unwinding—although I wish there were more of his interactions with Vanessa and Lorraine, because those two are precious.
The secondary characters made me literally snort with laughter the Charlotte Airport (people stared). Nana and his dignified trips to Tim Horton’s, along with his love of Shakespeare and sneaking cigarettes and really just everything else. Nani, who always gets her man and should totally have been a detective or mountie. Imam Abdul Bari, my favorite Hawaiian shirt wearing imam who balances religion, tradition and the realities of life. Zareena, for being herself (no spoilers lol). And Clara, who probably should never play matchmaker ever again (and Khalid, who totally should). Anywho, they all felt like real people instead of characters on a page, and I just wanted to drink a chai with all of them (well, most of them—I’d like to punch Sheila in her racist face).
There are many themes that run throughout the book, but mostly it’s about balancing tradition with contemporary life (particularly being an Indian Muslim immigrant in Canada), and realizing that there are many ways to practice your faith and honor your family’s sacrifices while being true to yourself. And that there are many ways to grow up.
And there are many different ways to fall in love.
CW: Islamophobia, fatphobia
I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review.