Desert Isle Keeper
Ayesha at Last
Sometimes, an artist emerges to breathe fresh life into a classic and the reader is left agog with delight. Granted, there have been so many retellings of Pride and Prejudice released over the last few years I can barely scrabble to the top of the hill of them to see ahead to the Sense and Sensibility retellings on the other side. With a mountain of would-be Darcys and Lizzies to sift through, it takes a lot to make any of them stand out from the heap; but that is what Uzma Jalaluddin does with her gorgeous, sensitively rendered and brilliant told version of the story, Ayesha at Last. About a teacher looking for love almost in spite of herself, it glimmers and charms right from the start.
Ayesha Shamsi is not interested in marriage, in spite of the fact that she has had some offers and her twenties have begun to pass her by. In debt thanks to her pursuit of higher education, she lives at home and teaches as a substitute within the Toronto school system, helping to support her grandparents, overworked mother and moody younger brother while dealing with the emotional repercussions of her father’s mysterious death back in India. Her close relationship with her lighthearted, flibbertigibbet cousin, Hafsa, is often complicated by Ayesha being roped into playing responsible adult to Hafsa’s impulsive immaturity. Hafsa, a man-magnet who receives rishta proposals by the score, often leaves Ayesha holding the proverbial bag when she turns down each arrangement with their family.
For recent Toronto transplant and e-commerce manager Khalid Mirza, the sight of Ayesha walking the streets of their neighborhood in her purple hajib is the newfound highlight of his day. His Ammi Farzana is pressuring him to settle down, and at twenty-six and upon his father’s recent death, he’s both responsible for her and stuck tolerating her matchmaking whims. Khalid is a conservative and traditionally observant Muslim, and in his opinion it’s his job to be good and responsible, unlike his younger sister, Zareena, whom he loves deeply and misses greatly since her banishment back to India and an arranged marriage.
Unfortunately, when their mutual friend Clara tries to introduce them, Khalid – dragged along to a bar where Ayesha is reading her daring poetry at an open mic night – while secretly fascinated and electrified, declares that he’d never date the kind of woman who’d do such a thing. Ayesha promptly decides that if he doesn’t like women like her, he doesn’t have to meet her. Thus when they finally bump into one another, he has no idea the beautiful girl from his neighborhood and the poet who inflames his dreams are the same person, the nontraditional friend of Clara he rejected. And Ayesha sees this bearded man in traditional dress and presumes him to be a fundamentalist with a penchant for following her instead of the kind if socially awkward man he really is.
Ayesha is soon in trouble of her own. Mistaken for Hafsa, she’s swept up into a planning committee for the mosque’s youth conference, a ruse Hafsa encourages her to continue. On the committee and desperately trying to keep the mosque from going into full bankruptcy, Ayesha and Khalid find themselves growing closer. When his mother finds out Ayesha’s true identity, she goes behind Khalid’s back to arrange a marriage for him with the true Hafsa, preferring the girl’s wealth and youth and presuming Khalid will obey her no matter what. When Tarek, Khalid’s co-worker, reveals the reason for Zareena’s banishment to Ayesha, can Khalid learn to speak out against his mother’s controlling nature and the power of the lies being told – and will Ayesha stand up in the name of her own happiness before it’s too late?
Ayesha at Last is such a delightful story. Lighthearted while popping some serious questions about life into mix, it makes its everyday world seem lively and new and filled with people you’d gladly have a coffee with any day of the week.
Ayesha and Khalid are more than simply Elizabeth and Darcy done over again. While Ayesha has Lizzy’s feisty independence and Khalid Darcy’s socially awkward stiff-neckedness, they’re both unique people with unique problems; and although the plot follows that of Pride and Prejudice in a decent way, it doesn’t do so linearly provides a fresh outlook on the material.
The supporting characters are very interesting. I liked the complicated selfishness of Hafsa and Ayesha’s mother, and I loved minor characters like Masood, who works as a life coach for professional wrestlers (“Australians are really taking over. I blame the kangaroos.”).
Current cultural mores are discussed with aplomb. The book does a very solid job of explaining the prejudices that Khalid encounters in his work environment (a co-worker doesn’t understand why he won’t shake hands with her, which dissolves into more overt racism from her) as well as the sometimes restrictive pressure faced by young Muslim women of keeping living their faith while also existing in the modern world. The life of the Toronto-based Muslim community is deconstructed perfectly.
I only have two real problems with Ayesha at Last. The first is that Hafsa, Tarek and Farzana start out as sympathetic or at least complex villains and become more dramatic and cartoonish as the book wears on; two of them receive proper redemptions, and one, understandably does not, but only one of them makes it back to being a well-rounded character before the book ends. The other involves some occasionally amateurish turns of phrase in the prose. But neither will really be enough to turn away viewers happy to be enraptured by the book’s spell.
Ayesha at Last is a crowd-pleasing and quite tender romance that’s beautiful to behold.