on the shelf
By Monica Ali
Scribbler: 432 pages, $28
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One of the things that set Monica Ali’s 2003 debut novel, “Brick Lane,” apart from the rest was her insistence that London should be fully home to her Bangladeshi-born characters. Even more recent immigrants, like Nazneen, have steadfastly settled down without apologizing for their existence even when their existence is questioned. That’s partly what made “Brick Lane” a bestseller and then a movie, Ali as a Booker Prize finalist and Granta “best young novelist.”
After several books that went far beyond (“Alentejo Blue,” short stories set in Portugal; “In the Kitchen,” a hotel staff murder mystery; and the Princess Diana alternate history, “The Untold Story”), Ali scored 10. take a year off publication. This year they are back with “Love Marriage,” a contemporary comic about an interracially engaged couple on a rocky road to their marriage.
An overstuffed book couch with too many subplots and too many words. (Ali told British Vogue that the first draft contained 2.4 million copies; kudos to the editors for getting it down to just 500 pages.) But then, which of us can resist an overstuffed couch?
Yasmin Ghorami and Joe Sangster, both doctors, are in love. Joe’s mother, Harriet, invites them to her home for dinner with Yasmin’s parents, Anisah and Shaokat. A feminist writer and artist famous for appearing in a surprisingly open-legged photograph, Harriet contrasts in many ways with the Ghoramis, who insist on carrying tote bags full of Bangladeshi food to lavish evenings.
Surprise, surprise: Yasmin and Joe end up feeling left out when Harriet and Anisha quickly become close and start planning both their wedding festivities and new get-togethers. It is the bride-to-be who is suddenly forced to adjust her expectations: “Yasmin smiled. “So Harriet turns you into a feminist?” “Oh, no,” said my mother, smiling. ‘I’m already a feminist.’”
As with his debut, Ali has fun breaking culture clash stereotypes (this time in the romantic comedy subcategory). Early on, we learn that Anisah and Shaokat had an unusual “love marriage” for their time and place. It can be assumed that their support for their daughter’s upcoming wedding was due to their own humble rebellion.
He should not assume anything, not with Ali. In “Brick Lane,” he destroyed the idea that Muslim wives are timid and chaste. In “Love Marriage” all kinds of women try to destroy their ideas. (No wonder his first draft is so long.) Ali manages it with planned chaos (relationships, sex addiction, a baby on the way for Yasmin’s clumsy sister) while also carefully smashing expectations. Besides Harriet and Anisah’s awkward double friendship, there are hints that Joe isn’t as perfect as he seems. In the end, even the title of the book is questioned. Is there a “love marriage”?
Ali’s attempts to answer that question are unbearably hilarious, sometimes almost brutal. Still fascinated by her parents’ true love, schoolgirl Yasmin writes a short story about this love for the class. We take a look at her own fears when she gives it to her father to read:
“You wrote things you didn’t know. You can’t know that.”
“Creative writing, Dad. Mr. Curtis really liked it. You can finally read what he wrote.”
“You don’t know what I said to your mother in the library in Calcutta. You weren’t there. You weren’t born You don’t know what you told me. Yet you wrote as if you were at the next table. Tell me – how are you different from a liar? How is this creative writing different from lies?”
Observations like this elevate what might have been an ordinary home story in the hands of a lesser writer to another level. Ali has a very modern and human approach to how and why to live with his seemingly outdated structure and character focus. Shaokat’s secrets are lies of another magnitude from his young daughter’s fiction; another character must learn to stop living a lie; yet another will have to admit the trauma before they can tell the truth. These showdowns leave a real mess behind them. But for anyone to truly live a better, more honest life, the mess needs to be cleared.
Like his literary ancestor and influencing Jane Austen, Ali has a lot to say about the moral life. By the way, it’s not the same as “morality”. Despite being classified as etiquette novelists, neither Austen nor Ali trade in any way; rather, they use the customs of an era to show how much we have become infected with rotten structures that have become impossible to distinguish from lies. This, of course, means that the phrase “Love Marriage” involves a lot of decoding.
How do you untie a sofa? This is not just an exaggerated metaphor; this is a dilemma. Ali’s final chapter, “Probability,” makes an elegant study of the common problem of the maximal novel: the cut ending. Instead of updating us character by character, the author makes Yasmin make coffee one morning and think about what happens next. While somewhat transparently cinematic, it’s less clumsy than the usual “Epilogue.”
If you’ve decided to read “Marriage of Love” – and you should! – get lost happily on its pages but watch out for Ali’s purpose if you can. It proves that modern characters are still at the center of a Dickensian-length book. Just as Dickens wrote about his own London, Ali writes about his London – about those who make their home within its confines but also among its wild possibilities. Despite our uniquely modern problems, we still have the same human flaws—enough to overfill a novel.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets. @TheBookMaven.