Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Ayesha at Last by Uzma JalaluddinAyesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
Published by Berkley on June 4, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 368
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley
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A modern-day Muslim Pride and Prejudice for a new generation of love.

Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn't want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century.

Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and the unsettling new gossip she hears about his family. Looking into the rumors, she finds she has to deal with not only what she discovers about Khalid, but also the truth she realizes about herself.

Some people might say there are too many Pride and Prejudice retellings in the world. Personally, I think that’s impossible, and I especially love the retellings set in non-white communities that we’ve been getting recently, like Pride by Ibi Zoboi. Even keeping a number of elements the same, there’s so much that’s fascinating in what an author chooses to keep and what an author chooses to adapt or leave out. In Ayesha at Last, Jalaluddin delivers a Pride and Prejudice retelling that feels fresh and original, and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Most of the time, I fall in love with a book in the first few pages, especially if it’s a contemporary novel. Genre fiction sometimes takes a while to get going, but contemporaries get rolling quickly. Ayesha at Last had me from the very start, even without me being aware that the book was a P&P retelling. I realized that a little way in and was pleasantly surprised.

Ayesha at Last switches between the third POV perspectives of Ayesha and Khalid. Third person isn’t my favorite for contemporary romances, because first does tend to help the characters feel more alive, but it works fairly well here. That said, I did feel a slight bit more distance than I wanted, but it wasn’t so much as to be a real problem.

Jalaluddin makes a lot of changes to P&P, and I actually loved her modifications most of all. The strongest element of this book, aside from the great lead characters, is the way the adaptation has been done. Ayesha does not have sisters but cousins. Ayesha’s father died when she was 10. The role of Mr. Bennett is filled by her grandfather, and there is no nerves-beset Mrs. Bennet determined to marry Ayesha off; in fact, Ayesha’s mother argues against marriage most of the time. There’s no Bingley and no Jane. Khalid wants to get married, and he wants to have his bride chosen for him by his vaguely-Aunt Catherine-y mother. That’s not everything that varies from P&P, but those are some of the big ticket items.

Writing this out, part of me thinks, “But how can you retell P&P without all of that?” but the answer is that you can, if you’re mindful. With the closeness of the family, the cousins are like sisters. Ayesha’s cousin Hafsa serves both as sister and Ms. Bingley, which is a particularly fascinating change. Jalaluddin cuts and modifies a lot, but the core of the story remains intact, and you don’t feel like anything is missing from the story.

Khalid has serious Darcy vibes, and it’s so awesome to read about a devout Muslim Darcy. Like, he absolutely is just totally awkward around people, especially women, and it’s kind of precious how hard he tries and fails to understand other people’s thought processes. He and Ayesha get off to a poor start, because he initially dismisses her as a bad Muslim, since he sees her out at a lounge with her friend and assumes she drinks. Meanwhile, she assumes that he’s a fundamental asshat because of his disdainful assumptions. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for both, they end up having to work together to try to save the mosque. Their hate to love arc complete with slowburn and very intense almost touching/barely touching moments is excellent.

Some of the aspects around their professions were a little bit strange. Ayesha sounds like a terrible substitute teacher, because she’s consistently afraid of her students. On her first day, she even left them alone in the classroom to go freak out and write a poem in the bathroom. But somehow she gets offered a full-time teaching position? Khalid meanwhile gets assigned to build a website by his racist asshole of a boss who wants an excuse to fire him. It seems like he does have the skill set he needs to do this, only he really likes clashing colors? His aesthetic is a running gag throughout the book, and I didn’t really get it. That said, I did think the overall plot with Khalid’s work was deeply satisfying, though View Spoiler ».

The other aspect that didn’t work as strongly in Ayesha at Last was the Wickham plot. Honestly, I think the issue is that Jalaluddin sticks too close to the original story, and the end result is that Tarek’s characterization is really confused. There’s an attempt to redeem him in one way View Spoiler », but overall he’s a really horrible person View Spoiler ». This really didn’t flow, because the elements don’t come together convincingly. I cannot believe the guy from the first spoiler would be the guy from the second. I’d hoped that View Spoiler ».

Obviously there are a few aspects that didn’t totally work, but for the most part I was so happy with this debut novel. Berkley’s been rocking the cover art, and it’s definitely not a trap.

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