Review: Unmarriageable – Soniah Kamal
by Soniah Kamal
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: January 15, 2019
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
In this retelling of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice set in modern-day Pakistan, the five Binat sisters and their marriage-obsessed mother navigate a world where money trumps morality and double standards rule the day.
A scandal and vicious rumor in the Binat family has destroyed their fortune and prospects for desirable marriages, but Alys, the second and most practical of the five Binat daughters, has found happiness teaching English literature to school girls. Knowing that many of her students won't make it to graduation without dropping out to marry and start having children, Alys teaches them about Jane Austen and her other literary heroes and hopes to inspire them to dream of more.
When an invitation arrives for the biggest wedding their small town has seen in years, Mrs. Binat excitedly sets to work preparing her daughters to fish for eligible--and rich--bachelors, certain that their luck is about to change. On the first night of the festivities, Alys's lovely older sister, Jena, catches the eye of one of the most eligible bachelors. But his friend, Valentine Darsee, is clearly unimpressed by the family. Alys accidentally overhears his unflattering assessment of her, quickly dismissing him and his snobbish ways.
But as the days of lavish wedding parties unfold, the Binats wait breathlessly to see if Jena will land a proposal--and Alys begins to realize that Darsee's brusque manner may be hiding a very different man.
A retelling of Pride & Prejudice set in Pakistan? Yes, yes, a thousand yes’s! From meeting Mr. Darcy and Bungles at the Pakistani wedding of the year, to talking about partition and the place of English literature in Pakistani history, this is an amazing reimagining of my favorite Austen book.
“I want,” Mrs. Binat announced, “the girls to fish for husbands at the NadirFiede wedding.”
Alys gritted her teeth. She could see before her eyes a large aquarium of eligible bachelors dodging hooks cast by every single girl in the country.
“Aha!” Mr. Binat said, taking a samosa. “Nadir Sheh and Fiede Fecker are getting married so that our daughters get married. So kind of them. Very noble! I suggest you also line up, Pinkie, my love, because between you and the girls you are still the most beautiful one.”
The book starts with English teacher Alys going over her students’ latest assignment – to come up with their own version of P&P’s famous first sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” and the characters continue ruminating on that story throughout the book, though they never recognize the similarities between it and their lives. In a lot of ways, the book sticks pretty closely to the original, which is insightful in some ways and a bit tedious in others. The character names, for instance, “Looclus” instead of “Lucas,” were a bit over the top. Where it excels, though, is showing the similarities between Regency English and near-modern Pakistani society, and in Ms. Kamal’s humor and insight.
“You live the life I’d like to lead,” Jena said softly. “To be able to contribute happiness to the less fortunate.”
“Jena,” Mrs. Binat said, “concentrate on grabbing Bungles, and, once you’re married, you can do whatever you want.”
“That’s a lie.” Alys gave a derisive laugh. “The dangling carrot to lure us into marriage.”
“Lost cause,” Mrs. Binat muttered, gazing sorrowfully at Alys. “You will die of loneliness if you don’t get married.”
“I’ll never be lonely,”—Alys gave a satisfied sigh— “because I’ll always have books.”
I seriously want to be BFFs with Alys. She’s hilarious, with a biting wit and the courage to continuously remind her students that there is life beyond matrimony. Unlike some retellings I’ve read, Ms. Kamal doesn’t shy away from making Alys a flawed, if very empathetic, character. Sometimes it seems like an author forgets that there are two parts to the book’s title – pride and prejudice – where Darcy is such a conceited peacock to the point that Eliza’s continued dislike of him is viewed as completely just. In this book, though, while Darsee still has a version of his famous line when asked about the second oldest Miss Binat, it’s not too long before the reader comes to see that while he’s certainly arrogant, Alys’s continued dislike of him is unfair. In similar ways, I found all of the characters very realistic, and even the ones who tend to be overly caricatured, like Mrs. Binat, were handled with a deft touch and a lot of empathy. I especially loved Sherry – Charlotte Lucas – who marries Mr. Farhat Kaleen. Though some of her lines were lifted directly from the book, I found her a refreshing remake, especially in terms of her marriage bliss, and how pleased Alys was with her friend’s happiness.
I especially adored the Pakistani setting! I loved the Urdu phrases sprinkled throughout the book, and since my only brush with it comes from watching Zindagi Gulzar Hai on Netflix, I also appreciated Ms. Kamal’s deftly inserted translations. And the food! I spent a lot of time googling all the delicious things the characters were eaten. The humor, the wit – Mrs. Binat, who I usually consider a trial, had me in stitches several times – everything was excellent and had a wonderful sense of place.
“It was a truth universally acknowledged, Alys suddenly thought with a smile, that people enter our lives in order to recommend reads.”
Overall, this has easily become one of my top 5 P&P retellings! Highly recommended!