Thank you to the author, Soniah Kamal and publisher, Penguin Random House for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
“Jane Austen is ruthless when it comes to drawing-room hypocrisy. She’s blunt, impolite, funny, and absolutely honest. She’s Jane Khala, one of those honorary good aunts who tells it straight and looks out for you.”
In 2017, I attended the Decatur Book Festival and had the privilege to go to a session, “Creating Jane Austen and Austen Creations,” where author Soniah Kamal was on the panel. My ears perked up when she talked about why she loved Jane Austen. Kamal said she loved Austen’s “super sharp whit” and her ability to demonstrate “what makes a good sister” in the relationships in her books. When Kamal said she was releasing a retelling called Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan, I knew it was a book I wanted to read. I had my fan girl moment when I had a chance to talk to her after the session to ask more questions about the book, when and if I could get a review copy.
This book was the way to start off my reading year. I’ve tried a few retellings of the classics and my track record has been hit or miss. My favorite retellings remain true to the essence of the original story while bringing something unique and relatable.
What makes Unmarriageable such a wonderful book is that we see the characters of Pride in Prejudice in a setting that is current and relevant. Set in Lahore Pakistan, we meet Alysba Binat (Alys aka Elizabeth) an English Literature teacher at the British School of Dilipabad. Her older sister, Jena (Jane) works as a teacher there too. Both have been teachers at this school for the last 10 years in an effort to care for their family after some family and financial fallout.
When Alys gives her students the assignment to rewrite the famous opening lines of Pride and Prejudice I felt a connection with Alys. First, who wouldn’t want a teacher who starts class this way? Second, Alys’ independence and contentment in living her life. As a single woman, she encourages her students to think beyond marrying (well) and starting a family at such a young age. Instead of viewing school and education as a way to pass the time until you receive a marriage proposal, Alys shows them through her example that happiness and fulfillment is possible outside of the societal norms in Pakistan. I would want Alys as my teacher, because if you’d never been exposed to different possibilities for young life, especially as a woman, how would you know to pursue them?
This was a truth universally acknowledged in Jane Austen’s day, so Alys, like Elizabeth Bennett was not content to settle for just anybody even if that’s socially expected and accept. All to the anguish and disappoint of one’s mother, Mrs. Binat. As a loving mother, who was at times obnoxious and overbearing Pinkie Binat was determined to make sure all of her daughters were well married. And I should add, funnier than I remembered from Pride and Prejudice. When the Binats are invited to one of the biggest weddings of the year, Pinkie will not miss out on the opportunity for potential marriage proposals for her beautiful daughters.
Alys and Jena’s embody the essence and spirit of Elizabeth and Jane but without feeling like carbon copies. Alys says what she thinks without hesitation while Jena sees the good in others. Their younger sisters are as we remember but I think Qitty was one of my favorite. Darsee (Darcy) and his good friend Bungles (Bingley) along with his awful sisters, Hammy and Sammy (twins in Unmarriageable) were as I remembered. Hammy and Sammy are twins which I thought a run perspective on their relationship as sisters but also the way they view Bungles and Jena. Sammy is married to Jaans, a man she can’t stand, but adds another dimension to the overall theme of the book while adding originality and humor, all characteristics of an Austen novel.
Sherry (Charlotte), close friend of Alys faces her own set of unique circumstances and I must thank the author for allowing me to see her through a different lense. I don’t remember having much emphaty for her in Pride and Prejudice but Kamal gives me a lot to think about with her and women like her even today. I can’t tell you what they are, you just have to read the book.
Unmarriageable is more than I anticipated. I gushed over all the literary references, nodded my head in agreement when I recognized quirks and character traits of Pride and Prejudice. I couldn’t help but laugh when the characters would mention how one of them was just like their counterpart from an Austen book. How perfect is that? Do we not see ourselves or our friends and family in the books we read? Alys and Darcee made it apparent that for book lovers it becomes obvious when we immerse ourselves in great books; literature has no boundaries.
Kamal has done a wonderful job with this book and I can highly recommend this one.