An exquisitely written story about the members of an Indian-American Muslim family struggling to find a place to belong both at home and in the world
Rafiq and Layla want their children to honor the traditions of their own upbringings in India. That means arranged marriages, traditional gender roles, and preserving their image in the community. Rafiq is proud, harsh, and detached, and Layla, strong but silent, chooses to keep the peace rather than challenge him. Their three children are American born and raised and have their own expectations for life, but neither Rafiq nor Layla is willing to recognize the difference between themselves and their children. Hadia is the perfect, dependable older sister. Huda is the middle sister—religious and independent. Amar is their younger brother—bright and sensitive but always in trouble. While the family is tight-knit, the house is often a quiet, tense place, and the relationships and interactions are often toxic.
The novel opens at Hadia’s wedding, where she is (surprisingly) marrying a partner of her own choice. Amar’s presence at the wedding is the source of serious tension; he has been estranged from the family, and the wedding is the first time they have seen him in years.
The story is divided into four parts. Parts one and three occur at the wedding, and part two is the story of how they got there. It has snippets from as early as Layla’s childhood and as late as Hadia’s relationship with Tareq (her husband). The fourth part of the novel circles back around to focus on one character—I’d rather not say who. But I will say that toward the end of part three, I felt confused about where the book could possibly go next, and I was anxious about the ending of a book that was thus far a five-star read and one of my favorite of the year (and possibly ever). As soon as the part opened, and I understood where Mirza was leading us, I felt both relief and an even deeper appreciation for this story.
It’s a story that I didn’t know I needed. It speaks so clearly to how hard it is be to a member of a family. How fiercely we can love one another and quietly destroy each other at the same time.
This book got me thinking not only about my own childhood and my parents, but also about how I’m parenting my children. In most families, each person wants to do what’s right, but they don’t always know what that is, and they can’t always reconcile what’s right for them with what’s right for the other members of their family. Expectations complicate simple decisions, and love masks selfishness.
The writing is exquisite: even in the nonlinear second section, Mirza fluidly moves the reader from scene to scene, future to present to past to future again with minimal cues. I was never confused about the time or place of a scene in that section. Her writing simply doesn’t feel written: you are that submerged into the story.
While the novel is entirely in the third person, I was able to get inside most of the different characters’ heads really well, including many of the supporting characters. The one exception to this is what I see as this novel’s one flaw—why wasn’t poor Huda more fully developed? I would have said that she’s the token religious figure in the story, except that Layla is also religious. I would have appreciated another one hundred pages of novel in service of Huda’s character development.
A Place for Us lends itself well to analysis—the characters are complex and complicated, the details are beautifully intentional (the names!!!), and the structure of the novel, including the nonlinear second section, is well-worth picking apart.
It’s also a fabulous pick for book clubs because there are both a plethora of character decisions and controversial issues to discuss. Some of the issues are immigration, assimilation, generational differences, love, careers, sibling relationships, the culture of Muslim communities in the US, religious difference, and gender equality.
Heartbreaking and thoughtful, A Place for Us is infused with grief, and yet at its surface it’s a novel about love: family love and romantic love. The overall effect is the point of the book: We all love the best way we know how, even when it’s not enough.
A Place for Us is out from Penguin Random House today and you can get a copy here.
I received an eARC of this book from NetGalley and Penguin Random House.