If we women decide to marry according to standards, then we are gold diggers, but when you weigh us in terms of looks and chasteness, then you’re just being smart. I can’t stand these double standards.
I have frequently thought about the similarities between Jane Austen’s regency era and Muslim life, so I’m always glad to see an Austen reboot with a Muslim spin. Unfortunately, I found the Muslim representation in Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable offensive and the writing mediocre.
Unmarriageable is a very close adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, sticking to the original story turn for turn. Because it takes place in modern-day Pakistan, the author makes minor changes. Balls become weddings, and while Darcy shocked Elizabeth when he asked her to dance, Darsee shocks Alysba when he gifts her a book he thinks she should read.
What this close adaptation means for readers, however, is that their perceptions of characters and events are amplified by their reading of Pride and Prejudice. That is why I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach when I discovered that Kamal chose to make Mary and Mr. Collins, the two most odious characters in the original, the primary representation of practicing Muslims in the new version. In Unmarriageable, Mari and Kaleen are stupid, disagreeable, and intolerant. Mari is sanctimonious and judgmental. Here is an example: “‘Disgusting,’ Mari hissed at Lady and Qitty. ‘You both need to get your heads examined before you really head to hell.’”
In one scene, Kaleen refuses to shake hands with members of the opposite sex (supposedly representing his piety) and then reminisces about a time when he was young and blackmailed his cousins into giving him a lewd magazine cutout. He then says the following abhorrent line. “‘That picture,’ Kaleen said, ‘allowed me an early window into the different types of women available in the world, and so I was able to see clearly at a young age which women were worthy of my time, attention, and earnings.’”
Further amplifying my dislike of the treatment of Islam in this novel is my sense that the author has an agenda she’s pushing. There is a scene where the sisters meet some people, and Mari declines to shake a man’s hand. Alys doesn’t have any problem shaking the man’s hand, and she does, but then she calls Mari “self-righteous” for declining. What kind of colonized feminism is this? Am I alone in thinking that every woman should have the choice to touch or not touch whomever she wants?
The only neutral representation of Islam that I found in this book is that at one point, Jena, who is a beloved character, prays before dressing for an event. But aside from this simple, everyday moment, nearly all representations of Islam in Unmarriageable are of characters that we either dislike or that we are meant to laugh at practicing an ugly distortion of Islam.
Another quibble that I have with this novel is the wholly ridiculous obsession that its characters have with Pride and Prejudice. How are they constantly discussing the original story and its characters and not seeing the similarities to themselves and their own lives?
A final complaint is with the vulgarity, which I found inappropriate both in its essence and in the probability that those characters would actually be that vulgar. For example, Kaleen says that his late wife smoked a hookah because “hookahs do not possess the indecent shape of a cigarette.”
I refuse to be 100% negative, however, and there were a few things I liked. For example, there were quite a few gender flips in this adaptation that were clever and that got my nerdy feminist heart beating wildly. For example, Alysba is the first to notice Darsee’s “fine eyes,” rather than the other way around. Another flip is an insult that Alysba flings at Darsee when she refuses his offer of marriage; she calls him “unmarriageable.” This is wonderful because Alysba lives in a society and teaches at a school where the goal is to “groom girls into the best of marriageable material.”
Another positive is Kitty’s adaptation into Qitty—a plus-sized artist. She struggles throughout the book with Lady’s (Lydia’s) teasing, but eventually learns that she is “fat and intelligent, fat and funny, fat and kind,” etc. She becomes a blogger, columnist, and role model, and she writes a graphic novel.
I love Pride and Prejudice as much as the next book nerd, but I will not be recommending this adaptation to anyone. Instead, I highly recommend Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin. It’s a loose Pride and Prejudice adaptation set in Toronto; it’s really funny and it has great Muslim representation.
I know that so many people have really liked this book, so I’d love hear other opinions. Have I got it all wrong? Am I being too sensitive?
Thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Random House for giving me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.