‘Pride and Prejudice,’ eh? What if Jane Austen were Muslim Canadian?

Uzma Jalaluddin’s debut novel ‘Ayesha at Last’ charms with its witty and insightful update of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ 

Penguin Random House
‘Ayesha at Last’ by Uzma Jalaluddin, Berkley, 368 pp.

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Does the world need “Pride and Prejudice and Muslims”? Indeed, it does – at least, it needs Uzma Jalaluddin’s version. Like “Pride and Prejudice,” “Ayesha at Last” is not just about a heroine finding her man, but how she navigates her small community’s narrow expectations for women and her family’s foibles and financial struggles, finding strength in her voice.

“Ayesha at Last” is packaged as chick lit, but the cover is just the book’s mask – and this is a book that’s all about the masks we wear to protect ourselves or please others. Where the novel shines is as “immigrant lit,” painting a nuanced portrait of an immigrant community and exploring themes like the intergenerational conflicts that can arise around tradition and assimilation. These become even more fraught in our current political landscape, with its rising tides of Islamophobia and nationalism. Yet “Ayesha at Last” is light and incandescent and deeply pleasurable from start to finish. You know it’s a good book when it’s obvious from the start who is going to get married, and yet you still can’t stop reading.

Not to mention the humor. From the first to last page, “Ayesha at Last” is very funny.

Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” has given birth to a cottage industry of sequels, variations, and modernizations, from “Bridget Jones’s Diary” or the Bollywood film “Bride and Prejudice,” to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Now comes an update set among Muslim Canadians, “Ayesha at Last,” the debut novel of Uzma Jalaluddin, who writes a humorous advice column on parenting for the Toronto Star.

Does the world need “Pride and Prejudice and Muslims”? Indeed, it does – at least, it needs Jalaluddin’s version, which is full of wit and verve and humor. Like “Pride and Prejudice,” “Ayesha at Last” is not just about a heroine finding her man, but how she navigates her small community’s narrow expectations for women and her family’s foibles and financial struggles, finding strength in her voice.

“Ayesha at Last” is packaged as chick lit, with a silhouetted face with a dash of lipstick, around which swirls a purple hijab on its golden cover, but that’s just the book’s mask – and this is a book that’s all about the masks we wear to protect ourselves or please others. Where the novel shines is as “immigrant lit,” painting a nuanced portrait of an immigrant community and exploring themes like the intergenerational conflicts that can arise around tradition and assimilation. These become even more fraught in our current political landscape, with its rising tides of Islamophobia and nationalism. Yet “Ayesha at Last” is light and incandescent and deeply pleasurable from start to finish. You know it’s a good book when it’s obvious from the start who is going to get married, and yet you still can’t stop reading.

Not to mention the humor. From the first to last page, “Ayesha at Last” is a very funny book.   

The plot centers around two South Asian immigrant families, that of Elizabeth and Darcy – oops, I mean Ayesha and Khalid. An observant Muslim, modern in her views of women and marriage, Ayesha is outspoken, creative, loyal, and easily bemused. From a family of modest means – her mother works night shifts as a nurse, while Ayesha substitute teaches – she’s all too aware that at 27, she has aged out of the marriage market, according to "the Aunties."

The key to a “Pride and Prejudice” remake is a dreamy Darcy, and Khalid is dreamy. He doesn’t care what others think, and so he is judged to be proud. He cooks to unwind, but surreptitiously, since his mother believes it’s a woman’s job. Missing his sister, whose absence haunts him, makes him serious. Unflaggingly gentle and loyal to a fault, Khalid’s scrupulous honesty and religious commitment make him socially awkward, especially in the face of sabotage from his Islamophobic boss, Sheila, at his tech firm. Creating a leading man who sports a long beard and robes – an appearance many westerners associate with radicalism – is a radical act, in the best sense of the word. Khalid is a contemporary invisible man, a character onto whom others project their assumptions and preconceptions, even more progressive Muslims like Ayesha. Yet, the story suggests, sometimes those who appear most strange or foreign are most trustworthy, while those who accommodate may merely be slick.

When Khalid spots Ayesha at a lounge and mistakenly assumes she is drinking, he judges her within earshot, before falling in love while watching her perform a poem. Hijinks ensue, propelled by a cast of wonderfully drawn comedic supporting characters. Ayesha’s grandfather, or Nana, a former English professor in Hyderabad, India, speaks largely in Shakespeare quotes. Masood, a wrestler and life coach, courts Ayesha in a clever modernization of the oafish clergyman Mr. Collins, who relentlessly proposes to Elizabeth. Masood, after assuring Ayesha, “I’m just not that into you,” won’t stop texting her. Claire, her best friend, provides support while Hafsa, her shallow cousin, nearly spoils Ayesha’s chance at romance.

Imam Abdul Bari, the wise spiritual guide at the local mosque, is just the sort of clergyman quietly fighting the good fight who all but disappeared from contemporary literature in the 20th century. (As I write this, I saw the minister who runs my local café, and gives all the proceeds to charities, tending to a homeless woman who had fallen asleep on the café sofa. Will someone please write these guys back into our stories?)

In the midst of all this, Jalaluddin touches on topics like alcoholism, homelessness, and internet porn – pressing issues of our times – weaving them in, in a way that feels unforced, with compassion and even hope.  

“Live like you’re in a comedy, not a tragedy, right?” Ayesha reminds her grandfather, when it seems their mosque may be closed down. “This is simply the plot twist at the end of act four,” he agrees.

It’s not a bad way to approach life.

Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York.

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