Cover image of the book 'Love Marriage' by Monica Ali. (By Arrangement)
Love Marriage is a book you slip into very comfortably. All is going well for Yasmin. She’s engaged to a fellow doctor she loves, her parents Shaokat and Anisah adore her fiancée Joe, and his activist mother Harriet treats Yasmin as family.
Everyone is happy apart from her layabout younger brother Arif who picks holes in everything. In this case it’s Harriet’s in-your-face feminism. The things she’s written, the risqué photographs, etc, would make a devout Muslim family blush.
Only, Yasmin’s Indian-origin Muslim family isn’t devout, particularly her atheist father who proclaims that her mother prays for both of them. They enjoy their drinks, live in a white community, and integrate, integrate, integrate! Which really annoys her mother, because she has to travel far to buy Hilsa and would much rather live in Indian communities like Wembley, Southall or best of all Tooting where there are more Muslims. "Why should we live here like mice?"
There are a few thorns of course, like Yasmin’s embarrassment when her parents meet Harriet. It’s not the accents, her father’s boring brown suit and her mother’s loud dress that bother her as much as the class difference. That meeting goes too well for Yasmin’s comfort as Harriet and Anisah bond surprisingly well and attempt to turn her simple wedding into a semi-religious circus.
From here everything goes downhill. Misgivings surface, flaws are revealed, no character is spared, not even Yasmin who always saw herself as Ms Goody Two-Shoes.
Joe has a terrible secret, and signs up for therapy. Harriet thinks it’s about his estranged father, but she’s terribly worried because, as far as she knows, therapists always blame mothers. Arif has always had serious issues with his father, things get out of hand and Anisah has to choose between her husband and her son. Yasmin finds Harriet controlling and mildly resents the close relationship she has with her son. Will there be a love marriage after all? Is the title a joke?
Even the bits in the novel that are not about the major characters are interesting, like the patients and staff in the elderly care department where Yasmin works. The charming 96-year-old Mrs Antonova who insists that she’s just bored, not depressed, the NHS, and the privatisation of custard creams.
Parties with Harriet lead to stimulating discussions on art, Brexit, bigotry, and Islamophobia. On the other hand there’s the hijab-wearing Rania, Yasmin’s best friend, who breaks rules when she feels like, and when she gets trolled complains, "To be fair to the Islamophobes they’re moderate compared to some of the Muslims. Or maybe just less inventive about the ways in which they’d like me to die."
While things fall apart during the course of the novel (some of the issues do seem exaggerated), they come together again in a manner that is a bit too pat. But then, reading Monica Ali is not about the story alone. It’s about the experiences that she writes about, her observations, and the way she writes as well — warm and engaging.
By Monica Ali
pp. 499, Rs 899