If you remember from the beginning of the year, I have been super pumped to read Ayesha at Last since I saw it was being published. Luckily, I managed to grab a review copy and let me tell you, this is such an adorable and wholesome story!!!
Title: Ayesha at Last
Author: Uzma Jalaluddin
Genre: adult contemporary fiction
Published on June 4th 2019 by Berkley Books
Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job, she lives with her boisterous Muslim family, and she is always reminded that her younger cousin Hafsa is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage. Then, she meets Khalid, a man who is just as handsome and smart as he is religious, conservative, and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century. When she hears gossip concerning his family and her younger cousin, Ayesha realizes she must deal with this newly learning information and with her conflicting feelings for Khalid.
Thanks for the free book, @PRHGlobal/@prhinternational!
If you didn’t get it from the blurb above, Ayesha at Last is a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It’s so interesting to me that, to this day, readers are finding ways of retelling Austen’s stories and adapting them to our more diverse and modern days. Although I am not a big Austen fan (I ended up DNFing Pride and Prejudice), I still think this works well as a retelling — but don’t go into it expecting it to be super close to the eighteenth-century classic!
Ayesha at Last is set in Canada and the two main characters — Ayesha and Khalid — are both first-generation Canadians. Their parents have immigrated from Southern Asia (India and Pakistan, respectively, if I am not mistaken) and so were brought up alongside two different cultures — that of their ancestral home and that of their current home.
The inclusion of religion and Southern Asian cultural values works much in the same way as eighteenth-century England conservative morale. I write this in the sense that it is the conservative or liberal approach taken in regard to religion that forms a barrier between the characters and within the characters. Jalaluddin did an amazing job on this front, making Pride and Prejudice feel current and updated.
On that note, I do not think this should be marketed as a Pride and Prejudice retelling. At least throw the “loosely inspired” somewhere! Although I don’t know the story beyond watching the BBC series and the Keira Knightley movie adaptation, this novel didn’t feel like a true retelling. As a matter of fact, I was pulled out of the story at several points in the narrative because I was looking for similarities between the novel and the classic where there were none. In spite of this, Ayesha at Last is strong enough to hold itself as its own book. I don’t believe it needs any Jane-Austen-based hype at all.
The characters are brilliantly developed. There’s that whole hate-to-love-or-maybe-not-love thing between Ayesha and Khalid going on that feeds my love-loving heart. The fact that they are complete opposites is only the icing on the cake! Ayesha is a ‘modern’ (whatever that means), working, liberal-minded woman with a fiery passion for writing poetry and voicing her opinions. Khalid, on the other hand, is a deeply religious, conservative, soft-hearted man looking to do what’s right, never listening to his heart. The differences in character are so stark that reading the exchanges between the two is delightful.
On the subject of characters, I absolutely loved the portrayal of Khalid. In my opinion, Jalaluddin was incredibly brave to write such as outwardly Muslim man. Our culture is one that paints conservative Muslim men is an incredibly dark color. They are criticized for oppressing women, being backward-thinking, and for constantly wanting control over everything, from female bodies to cultural objects and social events. And we do get to see this in Ayesha at Last — Sheila, Khalid’s boss, despises him for his religious beliefs, which are clearly manifested in the way he dresses and in his actions. I mean, a man wearing a floor-length white robe, a head cap, long beard, and refusing to shake hands with women does not go unnoticed — to Sheila or to us! Thus, the reader is confronted with a conservative practicing Muslim who faces the kind of Islamophobia we are all too used to witnessing in the media and in day-to-day conversations. I love how bold Jalaluddin was on this front by forcing the reader to reevaluate their prejudices and rethink the mainstream Muslim man narrative. It was refreshing and, honestly, one of the best bits of the novel.
A minor issue I encountered while reading Ayesha at Last was the pace. The first and last thirds of the novel were delightfully entertaining; I read them in just a couple of sittings. But the middle portion was a little too slow. I felt like the story dragged for quite a bit in trying to give the reader a heavy slice-of-life dose of Ayesha and Khalid. Obviously, this was by no means a deal breaker, just something that resonated with me.
A much bigger problem I have that is making me reconsider my rating is the final resolve of the novel. SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH AHEAD IF YOU DON’T WANT ANY SPOILERS! The novel’s climax happens with Khalid changing how he presents himself. He stops wearing what Ayesha describes as “seventh-century clothes” and starts dressing like a sleek man living in present-day urban Canada. I am conflicted over this because, in a way, it is transforming Khalid into the person society wants him to be — less Muslim and more “agreeable.” As I stated before, the fact that he presents himself as a practicing Muslim is one of the strongest points of this novel. I feel like Jalaluddin chickened out at the last minute and took the easy way, not challenging the reader to abandon their biased knowledge of the Muslim world and faith.
Lastly, I have to of course point out how funny and entertaining the plot is. There are so many mishaps along the way that made me giggle and even laugh out loud once. From mistaken identities to over-the-top scheming families, you’re definitely not bored while reading this novel!