From the desk of Natalie Jenner
I am a firm believer that the love story at the heart of Pride and Prejudice is the best-constructed romance arc in all of literature. Author Julian Barnes once said of Darcy and Elizabeth that “the lovers are really made for each other—by their creator. They are constructed for each other: interlocked for wedlock.” The result for so many of us is the need for an occasional new hit of these two characters and their lust-versus-logic dynamic. So, when a promising debut author pens a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in my very own city of Toronto, Canada, I quickly find myself attending her local book signing and grabbing up several copies for the Austen lovers in my life.
In Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last, the setting is Scarborough, a suburban and diverse community in eastern Toronto full of townhouses and waterparks and strip malls. Our Darcy and Elizabeth are Khalid and Ayesha, two young Muslims who are both fatherless, both still living at home, and both experiencing the typical career angst of the millennial generation. After the meet-cute, not at a local assembly but rather an open-mike poetry slam night at a local bar, Khalid and Ayesha engage in a series of almost wilful misunderstandings as they both end up working on a Muslim youth event for the local community centre. Yet Khalid, in particular, is drawn to Ayesha and does not protest when he thinks that his mother has orchestrated an arranged marriage between him and the young teacher. But then events start to spiral comically out of control as Khalid’s mother intervenes in his life Caroline Bingley-style, one of Ayesha’s many young female cousins falls prey to a modern Wickham, and the community centre faces a financial and ethical crisis. As the two most level-headed, attractive and charismatic characters in the plot, Khalid and Ayesha must learn to work together for the sake of their families, their community, and their own romantic destiny.
I thoroughly enjoyed this rom-com of a novel and am always very appreciative when an author gives me my regularly needed Darcy-and-Elizabeth “hit.” One of this story’s most charming scenes is the very first one, where we as the reader watch Khalid watch Ayesha through his kitchen window as she stumbles out of the house on the way to her first day of work as a substitute teacher. It made me realize anew how much in Pride and Prejudice the reader is also watching Darcy watch Elizabeth, except this time she is wearing a purple hijab and forgetting her red coffee flask—a very common accessory up here in Canada—on top of her Toyota Corolla.
As with any Pride and Prejudice retelling, the likability and desirability of these two main characters are crucial to the success of Austen’s famous plot. Here the heroine Ayesha will delight readers with many of the same qualities we know and love in Elizabeth Bennet: confident, bright, fiercely loyal, and sanguine with whatever life throws at her. And, just as Austen did with Darcy, Jalaluddin creates such an attractive hero in Khalid that he walks tall through this book, a man of such principle and conviction that he wins over everyone around him except, unfortunately, his racist human resources leader. But unlike Darcy, Khalid brings out the best in everyone, as his perceived pride and remoteness are stemming from a deep commitment to his religion and culture, engendering in the other characters a real appreciation for the choices he makes—and is sometimes forced to make.
What I loved most about this novel, however, was how Jalaluddin, a journalist with one of Canada’s leading newspapers, writes so confidently—and authentically—that she can cover far more ground than a simple retread of Austen’s classic. As a result, Ayesha at Last provides both an Austenesque tale of modern romance as well as an amusing commentary on the modern workplace, millennial angst, failure to launch, non-committal long-term boyfriends, absent parents, overinvolved grandparents, and the subtle—and not so subtle—cultural coding that goes on in all communities.
This charming novel will resonate both with readers of Jane Austen and anyone interested in a good old-fashioned romantic comedy. I loved its humour, empathy for the characters, and deft demonstration of how a community can honour and supersede its own conventions and restraints. I must admit that, at first, the anticipated parallels with Pride and Prejudice were a little hard to spot for this reader, but as I read, I started to see more and more similarities, all the more fun for being so nuanced. I might have preferred a less zany end to the various plot threads, but everything was in keeping with the rom-com genre, and there is always enough reality to make you care about the characters. In Ayesha at Last, Jalaluddin provides humour, cultural commentary, and a range of family dynamics and tensions, all the while expertly keeping the overall tone dialed to “romantic romp”: the perfect setting for a beautiful and memorable summer read.
4 out of 5 Stars
Ayesha At Last: A Novel, by Uzma Jalaluddin
Trade paperback, eBook, and audiobook (368) pages
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Cover image courtesy of Berkley © 2019; text Natalie Jenner © 2019, Austenprose.com