Desert Isle Keeper
The Marriage Clock
Zara Raheem’s The Marriage Clock is a unique, beautiful story about a woman coming to accept herself – and the notion that maybe marriage isn’t everything.
Leila Abid is looking for love, glamour and adventure, but so far all life’s given her is a mid-level job teaching high school English, a small room in her parents’ house, and a lot of stymied ambitions, mainly about romance. Her dream husband is the kind of guy who will watch Bollywood movies with her, who will be handsome, swoonworthy and caring, just like the heroes in those films she’s carefully dissected – who will love her before marriage, not just after, as her father insists marriage tends to go. Leila even has a numbered list of qualities she’s looking for in a man, all inspired by the Bollywood heroes she loves. But sadly, finding one who both fulfills all of her desired qualities, is Desi and Muslim and also willing to indulge her fantasies of having the perfect romance, is a near to impossible feat. Her stylish mother is afraid that her twenty-six-year-old long-in-the-tooth daughter will never marry and is starting to take the process of finding her a husband into her own hands.
Ammi uses a network of aunties to create stacks of dossiers for Leila to look over, hoping she’ll find the right man via careful matchmaking. But after multiple nightmarish dinners with her parents present, Leila calls an end to the process. After a fight, her parents allow her to try to find a husband of her own, but she must produce results by the time of their thirtieth anniversary three months hence or they will once more take charge of her love life.
Fortunately, Leila has a circle of female friends to help her, a matchmaker willing to take her on and a dating app that looks promising. And then there’s always speed dating! As Leila treks along on a very American odyssey to find the perfect man, she receives a wake-up call in the form of her cousin Meena, for whom an American marriage means new freedom. Caught between new ways and old, Leila must adjust her expectations if she wants to figure out what to do – but how will she adjust when she learns the man who’s captured her fancy is engaged?
The Marriage Clock is a late-bloomer’s coming-of-age story. Some readers are going to find Leila’s arrested maturity and teenaged conception of romance irritating and unbecoming of a woman in her mid-twenties, but the level of sheltering to which she’d been exposed meant it made perfect sense to me. The point of the book is Leila figuring out how to adapt her childish romantic visions to the real dating world – and then realizing that the marriage she’s been groomed for all her life will only be part of a long, happy existence. She will grate on some readers due to her stubborn clinging to her fantasies about men, and even due to her snobbish rejection of many of her suitors (though they, in good time, soon reveal themselves to be horrible in their own way), but I found her sympathetic.
The book does a fine job walking the fine line between rejecting and accepting traditional roles for women in South Asian Muslim households; marriage is a blessing, as exemplified by the comfortable lived-in feeling of the one Leila’s parents have, and sometimes a curse bearing down on Leila, trying to rip away her still-youthful life. In vividly portraying life for Leila and her parents, stuck in traditional patterns and married to the hope of fictional, movie-screen love, Raheem draws in the reader, contrasting it with the faster-paced feeling of life in America among Leila’s friends, the novel tries to show how difficult Leila’s struggle to find real love is. When the family journeys to India for her cousin’s marriage, the cultural push-pull is heavily underlined in a way that’s beautifully done. I loved how Leila’s circle of friends helped exemplify a variety of ways to be American and fall in love.
Though the book is all about romance, the men Leila meets are almost beside the point in her growing process. Her dates are a little cartoonish and sit-com-ish, but they’re still funny and painfully true enough to make a reader nod and groan. Two men stick out as charming, and while each seems swoonworthy, each have hidden flaws that help grow Leila up.
The Marriage Clock is less about romance than the things we do for love – only to learn that we’ve been the person we were looking for. The ruby slippers were on your feet the whole time – sometimes all you have to learn how to do is click your heels together and make a wish.