This one comes down to personal taste.
I don’t write very many reviews like this — where it’s clear the author was good with words and had a brain in his head, even some good things to say — but where I just can’t stand the way it’s presented.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I gather, was somewhat revelatory when it was first published, as it was among rare company in being a post-9/11 novel told from a non-white, non-American perspective. I don’t know very much about Mohsin Hamid, but what I do know leads me to believe he drew large amounts of inspiration from his own experiences with being a Pakistani Muslim living in America while writing it. His protagonist, whose name is Changez, came to America to attend Princeton and stayed when he obtained a very prestigious and high-paying job upon graduating. He was living and working in New York City — although out of the country — at the time the planes hit the Twin Towers. The fact that his name is something as annoyingly on the nose as ‘Changez’ is only a minor symptom of what I dislike about this book.
I was actually pretty engaged with the story at first. It was interesting to see America from an outsider’s perspective, and I particularly liked the sequence where Changez had his job interview. But very quickly what had first pulled me into the story (his very distinctive use of second person ‘you’ throughout the narrative) began to turn me off. The framing device of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is that Changez is telling this story to an American stranger he has met while sitting in a cafe in Pakistan. But we never hear the other side of the conversation — in fact, we’re left with the distinct impression that the American is entirely voiceless for the conversation, despite that being logistically and realistically not feasable. That has some really interesting intellectual ramifications (mostly to do with being voiceless as a symbol for power and powerlessness), but the effect as a reader (at least for me) was to be totally turned off by what came off as an increasingly passive-aggressive (maybe even just plain aggressive) tone.
They style also drew attention to this being a written (and thus fictional) narrative. There were many instances where the faux-conversation second person narrative had Changez say things that you just wouldn’t say in a conversation, just so things could be made more clear for the reader.
I also didn’t very much care for the characters by the end. Changez’ relationship with Erika was slightly interesting at first, but by the end became an annoyance. I didn’t get the allure on his part, and on hers it was very clear that she was just using Changez as a distraction (his exotic foreign-ness probably helped) from the pain of having a dead fiance (a man she’d known since they were both children). If I had to hear her talk about said dead fiance one more time, I was going to throw the book across the room. I nearly did. And that should have been a moving, effective piece of the narrative. But in Changez’s/Hamid’s hands, it was just really annoying.
Lastly, the ‘revelations’ in this book sort of come across as pretty obvious (and played out, in much better books since this one was published). The only real interesting thing this book has going for it, then, is it’s style/structure, which as discussed above, was a huge turn-off. Other readers might have more success than I did, but overall, I feel like Hamid’s message was completely lost in the way he chose to tell his story. Ironically, I was looking for a story that humanized The Other, and what I got was just more alienation.