As anyone who has been part of the Cannonball Read for a while knows, I simply do not have the power to resist a Jane Austen retelling. Even if I’ve heard terrible things about it, I’m probably still going to read it. Unofficial sequels, modernizations, books told from alternate points of view? I am ALL IN.
I recently saw an article talking about how Jane Austen is all the rage right now with Southeast Asian writers and readers, and how there were a slew of upcoming books that were Jane-adjacent but told from the perspective of a young woman from India, Pakistan, or Indonesia. I made a note of a few of the titles, checked with my library, and waited.
The first one that I got access to was Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal, a modern retelling, advertised as “Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan.” From the Amazon blurb:
Alys Binat has sworn never to marry—until an encounter with one Mr. Darsee at a wedding makes her reconsider.
A scandal and vicious rumor concerning the Binat family have 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 schoolgirls. Knowing that many of her students won’t make it to graduation before dropping out to marry and have children, Alys teaches them about Jane Austen and her other literary heroes and hopes to inspire the girls to dream of more.
When an invitation arrives to the biggest wedding their small town has seen in years, Mrs. Binat, certain that their luck is about to change, excitedly sets to work preparing her daughters to fish for rich, eligible bachelors. On the first night of the festivities, Alys’s lovely older sister, Jena, catches the eye of Fahad “Bungles” Bingla, the wildly successful—and single—entrepreneur. But Bungles’s friend Valentine Darsee is clearly unimpressed by the Binat family. Alys accidentally overhears his unflattering assessment of her and quickly dismisses him and his snobbish ways. 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 from the one she saw at first glance.
Told with wry wit and colorful prose, Unmarriageable is a charming update on Jane Austen’s beloved novel and an exhilarating exploration of love, marriage, class, and sisterhood.
There was a lot to like here (and a little bit that I had some issues with). Lets get the bad out of the way first.
Alys (our Lizzie Bennet stand in) is a very intelligent English teacher, who specializes in literature, and Jane Austen in particular. The book starts with her asking her class (of all girls) to come up with a more contemporary opening sentence for Pride and Prejudice, replacing “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” with something that describes their current lifestyles and situations. Alys is ALWAYS talking about Jane Austen, and P&P in particular. She even talks about Colin Firth coming out of the lake at Pemberly.
She never ever stops to think about the fact that literally everything in her life is following the plot of P&P. I wouldn’t have had a problem with the plot if they hadn’t been so adamant about Alys worshipping at the altar of Austen, but this just made her seem like a bit stupid, quite frankly.
The other thing I didn’t love was the whole Lydia/Wickham subplot. Alys’ sister “Lady” is just about the worst human being I have ever had the displeasure of reading about. She has all of Lydia Bennett’s worst qualities, but MORE and WORSE. I honestly couldn’t blame “Darsee” for being ashamed of Alys’ family, simply because of Lady. She is abhorrent.
Other than that, I think the Pakistani originality really brought some freshness to the story, in particular, to the Bingla family, the Sherry Looclus (aka Charlotte Lucas) plots, and Darsee’s sister.
The Bingla family are self-made millionaires and celebrities, famous for having created a company that provides access to affordable and accessible feminine hygiene supplies. And Sherry never saw herself getting married, because she was almost 40 and unable to have children. She worried that her brothers wouldn’t want to have to provide for her when she got older, so when the widow Farhat Kaleen comes to town, she jumps at the chance to be his second wife. And Kaleen himself has some interesting things to say. He announces that he should be revered for having shown restraint when Alys rejected his proposal, because he could have been justified in throwing acid at her. SPOILER: And Darsee’s sister (I can’t remember her name) had gotten an abortion after her ill-advised affair with Wickham, and the details regarding how difficult that was in modern-day Pakistan made me really feel for her.
Yes, I had some issues with Alys’ lack of self-awareness, but the rest outshone the problems, leaving me with a book that I enjoyed. I’m embarrassed by how few Pakistani writers I can even name, so I’m glad that I took a chance on Soniah Kamal, and have already requested her debut novel, An Isolated Incident, from my libary. Rounding up from 3.5 stars.