Oh. My. God. This book. I zipped through it in a day, fell completely in love with all the characters, and already I want to read it again and tell all my friends to read it to. (Read this book!)
Ayesha at Last is a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in a Toronto Muslim community. I’ll be honest: I wanted to read this book because it seemed like a fun contemporary romance and I want to support diverse authors and diverse stories. But I’m a bit tapped out on Jane Austen retellings, and Pride and Prejudice in particular has been done to death.
But then I read this excerpt on the publisher’s Facebook page, and totally fell in love with the writing. I wanted to read more. I was intrigued by the fact that it was Khalid whose mother was trying to marry him off, and not Ayesha, and I laughed at the image of a travel mug falling off a car roof as Ayesha drives off.
Then I met the author and got a copy of the book at a Harper Presents event, and loved what the author said about the character of Khalid popping into her head and refusing to leave until his story is told. (It took 8 years!) Khalid is a romantic hero I don’t think I’ve ever read about before — he’s super conservative, dresses in a long white robe and skullcap and has a beard. Jalaluddin reimagines Darcy’s arrogance as super conservatism — the infamous moment where Darcy rejects Elizabeth Bennett is here reimagined as a super judgemental moment where Khalid dismisses Ayesha as not being a good Muslim because she happens to be in a bar and holding cigarettes. (Even though she’s drinking a virgin cocktail and the cigarettes aren’t hers.) And Elizabeth’s prejudice is here reimagined as Ayesha immediately deciding Khalid is a “fundy” with very rigid views on morality. (She later realizes she made some unfair assumptions partly based on his appearance.)
I loved the character of Khalid, and how his sometimes off-putting behaviour is contextualized by his really strict adherence to religious doctrine and more importantly, by his social awkwardness. I love that Jalaluddin avoids easy categorizations for her characters — Khalid happens to be a conservative Muslim, but there are many other Muslim characters, including Ayesha herself, who show varying degrees of adherence to religious practices. Even better, it’s Khalid’s inflexibility and snap judgements that are shown to be his faults, and not his conservatism per se. In fact, his faith and dedication to his community’s mosque are among the qualities that make Ayesha fall in love with him.
I also love the character of Ayesha, who is a substitute teacher by day and performance poet by night. At 27, she is considered a spinster for the rishta (arranged meetings between potential brides and grooms) market, and she’s okay with that, because she’s focused on her career. I related so much to her first day at work, and I absolutely love her family, with the Shakespeare-spouting grandfather, amateur detective grandmother and flighty cousin Hafsa, who wants to start an events company and is determined to have 100 rishtas before accepting a proposal.
I love the subplot about the mosque fundraiser that brings Khalid and Ayesha together, and the mistaken identity chaos that started out funny but turned out to be rather heartbreaking. I also really like the subplot around Khalid’s co-worker Amir, and how a man who seems like such a dudebro at first turns out to be dealing with much deeper issues. The moment when he opens up to Khalid was such an eye opener to me as well, and made me realize how much I wrongly assumed about him myself, based on his behaviour.
I especially love the subplot about Khalid’s workplace, where his racist boss plots to have him fired. I felt really bad for Khalid, and grateful for Amir’s support. But also I love the character of Clara, the recently-promoted HR Manager who also happens to be Ayesha’s best friend. She has to straddle the delicate line of protecting Khalid’s right to practice his religion while avoiding getting fired herself.
There are certainly familiar story beats from Pride and Prejudice throughout, but Ayesha at Last is such a great read mostly because of the elements that distinguish it from Austen’s original. I love the glimpse into the world of rishtas. I love the family dynamics amongst the characters, and the workplace dramas as Khalid deals with racism and Ayesha has to figure out what it is she really wants to do. Khalid and Ayesha have the cutest romantic chemistry, and I was cheering on their love story all the way.
This is such a fun, compelling book, and I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys contemporary romance.
As a side note: any chance for a spin-off romance starring Clara? I think she can do much better than her boyfriend, and while I love the cute way her romance subplot wrapped up, it also felt rather abrupt. Basically: I just want more from Jalaluddin, and I’m already eager for a sequel.
Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.