Uzma Jalaluddin is the latest author to be smitten by Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, the lovers so beset by pride and prejudice. Ayesha at Last takes the 200-year-old romantic comedy of manners, with its nods to Shakespeare, and updates it to the Indian Muslim community in suburban Toronto.
Hijab-wearing Ayesha Shamsi is unmarried at 27 (gasp!) and prefers to be at a poetry slam in a boozy lounge than at her new job as a substitute teacher. She may not come from a family of five sisters but does live with her widowed mother, younger brother, and grandparents and is tasked with older-sister duties to her rich, beautiful, and impulsive cousin, Hafsa. A wannabe wedding and event planner, Hafsa is giddily obsessed with the many engagement offers for an arranged marriage that are coming her way, all the while rejecting them one by one as if she were on The Bachelorette.
Mr. Darcy is reimagined as the very conservative and handsome Khalid Mirza, an e-commerce project manager from a well-to-do family who firmly believes that “love comes after marriage.” He lives with his strict widowed mother, a schemer at heart, and receives perfunctory emails from an older sister mysteriously banished to India. But life is not easy for Khalid as an identifiable Muslim with beard and skullcap, particularly when he finds himself saddled with a new Islamophobic boss. Fortunately, Khalil’s HR manager, Clara (who just happens to be Ayesha’s best friend), is on his side.
Ayesha and Khalid’s first encounter goes as badly as expected in such a book (she describes him as a “fundy,” short for fundamentalist) but the two get a second chance when they meet again by fluke to help plan a conference for young Muslims at the local mosque (which is badly in need of money). Thanks to a confused imam, Khalid thinks Ayesha is actually Hafsa, which leads to no end of misunderstandings as their mutual attraction grows. But, as per Pride and Prejudice, nothing goes as planned, especially the arrival of Wickham, in the guise of Tarek Khan, the slick conference organizer.
We know that Khalid’s first proposal will be rejected and that the no-good Tarek will have eyes for the real Hafsa while also chatting up Ayesha. Matching the secondary characters with their literary antecedents is a frothy diversion, as is trying to recognize scenes and speeches that have been adapted from the original book. Who will be the haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh? The loyal Mr. Bingley? And what about the ridiculous Mr. Collins?
Fortunately, Jalaluddin takes some liberties with the original, so that not every plot point lines up. Unexpected twists allow for mysteries to unfold as events culminate in a showdown at the mosque. While Jalaluddin pokes fun at the many hypocrisies in Austen’s novel, she also tackles serious issues such as forced marriage and addiction.
Ayesha at Last delivers on its promise of love and marriage for all, even if Jalaluddin’s use of language is not as famously quotable as Austen’s own.