Ayesha at Last
Sparks fly when a liberated Muslim woman meets a deeply conservative Muslim man in Ayesha at Last, a contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice.
He watches for her every morning. Khalid Mirza’s view from his breakfast bar occasionally includes a fascinating glimpse of a woman in a purple hijab carrying a red ceramic mug as she runs to her car. He knows it’s not appropriate to stare at a lady, especially without her knowledge, but he takes a wistful delight in watching this one. Her golden skin, dreamy smile, and petite form all delight him. She’s a spot of beauty in his otherwise mundane days.
When her favorite red mug breaks as she rushes through her morning, Ayesha Shamsi tries not to take it as a sign – but before the day is over she will definitely wonder if the loss wasn’t a profound omen. She had once dreamt of being a poet but practicality had her train to be a teacher and now has her accepting a substitute teaching job. Her first day finds her hiding in a bathroom stall to text her best friend Clara about the horrors she’s facing, forcing her to question her future career path.
Clara Taylor had been excited about her promotion to regional manager of Human Resources but her first day on the job is definitely not going well. Her new boss Sheila is a racist with an ax to grind against Muslims and demands that Clara begin looking for a reason to fire the conservative, skull cap and thawb wearing Khalid. She makes it clear that Clara will lose her own job if she can’t perform this simple task.
When Clara, trying to get Khalid to bond with his co-workers, invites him out to an evening of open mic poetry reading at Bella’s Lounge she is hoping Khalid will see Ayesha’s more laid back approach to faith and life and emulate it, making her problems with the boss go away. But it is definitely not love at first sight for these two: Khalid judges Ayesha for her willingness to hang out at bars and her desire to stand before a group of men reading poetry. He refuses to be officially introduced. Ayesha responds by considering him a “bearded fundy” and recites one of her poetic works which emphasizes the unfairness of people who judge you before meeting you.
This should have been the end of any relationship between them but it turns out to be the beginning. When her lackadaisical cousin Hafsa shirks her responsibilities in staging a conference at The Toronto Muslim Assembly, Ayesha is forced to take her place. Khalid and the other members of the committee all assume she actually is Hafsa and she doesn’t correct them, thinking it will be a one-time thing and that she will have the real Hafsa address the issue with them when she finally does show. But Hafsa, continues to slack, Ayesha continues to cover for her and sparks start to fly as Khalid and Ayesha get to know each other. And when an engagement is made with the wrong girl based on the name mixup? Let’s just say that’s the moment our sparks turn into a fireworks explosion.
There was so, so much I loved about this story. I will start with hero Khalid. It was so refreshing to read about a Muslim who practiced his faith. From daily prayers and his visits to the mosque to the way he dressed and his ceremonial ablutions he walked the walk as well as talked the talk. I liked that he brought that type of focus to all of his life; he was wonderful with his family, supportive of his sister and (overly) kind and dutiful to his difficult mother. He’s an excellent employee and a better friend than his buddy Amir deserves. When he buys Ayesha a gift to show he cares about her, it is a well thought out purchase, something truly reflective of her. He is a genuinely good man and I fell for him more than a little.
The author does an excellent job with the secondary characters, also. Nana and Noni, Ayesha’s grandma and grandpa, were my favorites with their quick wits and gentle humor but I loved all the family and how their bond overlooked/forgave each other’s foibles and faults .
I also adored how the author utilized her ‘Wickham’ character, Tarek. She made him a tad more understandable by giving some backstory to his behavior but his abuses towards women were despicable and left him firmly in cad territory. His thread was intriguing and thought provoking, although ultimately he was still a villain.
I loved the strong sense of community the author captured in the story. The interconnectedness of everyone in the tale is a reminder of how messy and wonderful life can be when it is lived in harmony. Most of us live in fragmentation and isolation, separating work from family and family from friends but Ayesha and Khalid are surrounded by a community that knows and cares about them and is connected to everyone they know and care about.
That said, there were a few things that kept this story from DIK status. Ayesha was in many ways a carbon copy of every heroine I’ve read in contemporary romance over the past months. The facts that she wears a hijab and doesn’t drink alcohol simply isn’t enough to set her apart. She doesn’t practice her faith outside of diet and clothing restrictions and I would have far preferred more character building for her than the many distractions we had with Hafsa, Clara et al.
Which leads me to another minor complaint. I also felt that some of the storylines going on sucked up time which should have been spent on the romance. Ayesha and Khalid’s courtship feels very rushed, as though it was just one aspect of the story rather than the focus of it.
And speaking of the romance, I was also disappointed that Khalid and Ayesha never really found middle ground on which to build their relationship. In order for them to work, Khalid had to change significantly between the start of the story and the finish, and I couldn’t help but wonder how long that transformation would last, especially since Ayesha hadn’t made any corresponding changes or concessions. This made me question their HEA: I could easily picture these two in future having a marriage where he hid at the mosque and she was grateful to have him out of the house.
Taken in balance, while I found some flaws in Ayesha at Last, I also found a lot of pleasure in reading it. It’s funny and, while it tackles some tough subjects, it’s hopeful and ultimately joyous as well. I think fans of Pride and Prejudice retellings will relish this charming and unique spin on that story. Fans of diverse contemporary romance will also find a lot to love here.