Having been pleasantly surprised with a few recent reads in the romance/islamic fiction genre I thought to give this slightly more cultural take a try. Unfortunately, this book didn’t surprise me pleasantly, but rather left me disappointed and slightly annoyed. At 231 pages and an AR 5.2, the book would have worked much better framed as a memoir or semi autobiographical dairy, as it stands as a novel there is no point to the story, no real character connection, no real lasting impression. There are a few comical concepts, but only because I am Pakistani-Muslim and female did I get them, and sadly those few instances, aren’t enough to carry the book and make it worth recommending.
Nina Khan is in high school in a small New York town and her strict parents don’t let her do the typical high school stuff like date or talk to boys. Her parents are not religious, unless her mom’s family is visiting and they put on an act. Her parents aren’t awful, however, they are educated, kind, and quirky, but culturally strict none-the-less. Nina has two amazing school friends, that she has grown up with that accept her and her social limitations for the most part. When Nina falls for the new boy in school, Asher, though, they work overtime to figure out how to get them together. In addition to the boy dilemma the other stress is Nina feeling like she is in her older sister’s shadow. An older sister who is a genius and is away at Harvard. There’s a girl at school that annoys Nina, but really their interactions are petty and annoy the reader more than anyone else.
As Nina’s friends hook up with boys and Nina has various interactions with Asher, one involving him seeing down the back of her sweater and thus her stripe of back hair, we are also introduced to some of her Desi friends. In my opinion the passages about her conversations with the ethnic kids trying to find their way in life and in love and still maintain their culture and religious values, is way more entertaining than the bantering back and forth with Helena and Bridget. If the author were to rewrite the book as a diary or biography, and focus more on the Desi friends, the book would probably be more interesting, compelling, and relevant.
The climax, if there is one, is when Nina’s parents go out of town and she is able to sneak off to a party and try alcohol, getting blackout drunk, and then going on a ski weekend with Asher, making-out with him and then deciding that that’s not for her. At least I think that is what she decided. She decided she can’t be with him, and she heads off to Pakistan with her sister to meet her parents, but thats it. There isn’t really a climax, there isn’t an ending. Literary structure might allow you to do one, but not having either a point or a conclusion, makes the book fall flat.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I read the whole book, so it wasn’t so atrocious that I couldn’t get through it, it just seemed to focus on the wrong things in the narrative and not make the main character relatable. I wanted to grow with her, but her reflection at the end didn’t really make a strong point for her, so it didn’t make one for the reader either. I think part of this is that the author, frustratingly to me, interchanges religion and culture a lot. And while she might get them kind of right, I think non Muslims and non Pakistanis might find the two muddled. She asks Allah to help her make a good impression with and Asher, yet constantly uses the Pakistani culture as the reason why she can’t date and drink in the first place. My thinking is that the religion should trump the culture, but because being brown and Paki and Muslim are all viewed as being the same, the logic is kind of lost. And granted in some households it really is that way with religion and culture, but the nuances aren’t explored, explained, or even acknowledged, unfortunately.
It is clear that the author knows Islam and Pakistan, her love of them (assumption) just doesn’t come through. Her off hand remarks about a lota, and ayatul kursi, and her Pakistani ranking system are funny, and momentarily relatable. Unfortunately, so often it seems the story is positioned so that the religion and culture are stifling and the western world is being denied to her. Honestly after reading the book, I’m not really sure why she doesn’t rebel and do what she wants, the story doesn’t really show what she gets out of doing what her parents want her to do, and why it would matter to her in the long run to do what she wants as a “rebellious” teen.
There is alcohol mentioned and consumed. There are a lot of relationship topics explored throughout the book including the minor characters deciding to have sex and the main character kissing. For mature readers, high school and up.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t present this book to a book club, nor can I see myself suggesting anyone to read it.