In my end of the year reviews for 2019, I compiled a list of all the Jane Austen retellings I read during the year. Though extensive, the list barely touched the surface of available “Pride and Prejudice Variations”–a genre that continues to grow with the increase in popularity of self-publishing and fan-fiction. In the list, I mentioned two recently popular ethnic Pride and Prejudice retellings and a third one I was eyeing that I finally finished last month.
So, time has come for a more thorough review of the three popular modern, ethnic P&P retellings published in 2019. Added bonus that y’all are probably quarantined and want something interesting to read. I present: Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin, Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal, and Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev.
Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
Ayesha at Last presents the most “realistic” P&P retelling. Set in Canada, it follows two Muslim immigrant/refugees from India (possibly Pakistan but my notes say India) and contrasts Khalid (the Mr. Darcy character) who is a very traditional Muslim with Ayesha (the Elizabeth Bennet) who is equally devout but a bit more liberal in her faith (i.e. wears a hijab instead of a full burka.) While following the familiar P&P plot, the story deals with racism, stereotyping, forced marriages, and a variety of other emotionally weighty topics.
- Lovely, diverse characters that exist as people and not as tokens
- Genuine emotions and discussions about stereotypes and cultural expectations
- The blending of cultures and the immigrant/refugee experience (Canada/India)
- Lovely couple/romance (they are both a little awkward but they mesh well and believably)
- Subtle Pride and Prejudice retelling (especially at the beginning. There aren’t random P&P scenes or quotes shoved in unnecessarily.
The book attempts to be both a social commentary and a “swoon-worthy” Jane Austen retelling and because it tries to be both, it fails at both. On the one hand, the author directly confronts issues of racism, stereotyping, and human rights abuses, even and especially within the Islamic faith. On the other hand, she is writing a Jane Austen retelling where everything must end with Happily Ever After. The result is dissatisfying. As a look at Muslims and much of the inner and outer challenges they face, it falls short because it veers into drama…possible kidnapping, trafficking, wrongful termination, embezzlement, etc. Which then feels extra weird when everything wraps up with a bow. But as a Jane Austen retelling, it lacks the romantic punch that makes you swoon at the end because it takes itself so seriously and handles such mature themes.
Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal
Unmarriageable takes place in Pakistan and also involves Muslim characters, but it presents a much less hard-hitting exposé. Or any exposé, really, at all. It is the drama and fun of P&P, but in modern day Pakistan with Mr. Darcy as Valentine Darsee–a young jet-setter in town for a wedding–and Alys Binat, a rural school teacher from a once wealthy family. He’s got pride. She’s got prejudice. You know the drill.
This was a fun read. It is ridiculous at times and sometimes felt like a poor quality Crazy Rich Asians, but the story flowed well. I mean, the reason I love P&P retellings is because they give me a familiar story but in a slightly different setting, and this does just that. Five sisters. Three suitors. Lots of miscommunication. Sign me up!
As a sort of pro and sort of con, the author frequently has characters rattle on about Pakistani movies, music, and literature. The goal, I assume, is to pique your curiosity and make you more interested in Pakistani culture. But too often it came across as reading a Comparative Literature syllabus for undergrads–not quite informative enough to be useful but still mildly informative.
There is something weirdly meta about reading a story where the characters live in a universe where Pride and Prejudice exists and they discuss it and yet don’t see how their own lives perfectly mirror the novel. Like, sure, pretend names like Binat, Darsee, and Bingla have nothhhinnnnggggg in common with Bennet, Darcy, and Bingley. I see you. Pure coincidence that there are five Binat daughters who behave exactly like their literary counter-points. The story also contrasts weirdly with Ayesha At Last because while the characters are nominally Muslim, they’re extremely loose Muslims. As an example, alcohol gets consumed frequently and the story ends by praising the Jane and Elizabeth characters for “requesting the right of divorce” on their wedding day. I struggled to understand what tone the author was going for.
Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev
Unlike the other two, Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors does not really play the ethnic card as much as I expected. Set in the United States, the Darcy character comes from a family of immigrants from India but the main connection to the country mostly revolves around eating Indian food. And the Elizabeth Bennet character comes from England and works as a Michelin chef in France. But this story has other things going for it because…
THIS IS A GENDER BENDER STORY! The Darcy character is actually the female (a brain surgeon named Trisha) and Elizabeth Bennet the male (the chef, DJ Caine.) It shakes things up a bit and adds several new layers to the story. Now she’s got pride and he’s got prejudice. Though it nominally follows the P&P plot (complete with a female Wickham!), the real drama centers on DJ’s sister, a painter about to lose her sight to a brain tumor and the fight to make her realize that life is still worth living even without her sight. And, oh yeah, something something about Trisha’s family…
Trisha’s family is priming her brother to become the next governor of California and they blame Trisha for something the Wickham character did years ago that could ruin his campaign…yada, yada. It is all over-the-top and didn’t hold my interest very well. Romance also got unnecessarily edgy near the end. Unlike the other two, I don’t have as many “concrete” complaints for this story except that the Wickham story line made me roll my eyes so hard they got stuck in the back of my head.
Have you read any of these? What rating did you give them?