Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, April 4, 2022

Monday, April 4, 2022: Maximum Shelf: Love Marriage

Scribner Book Company: Love Marriage by Monica Ali

Scribner Book Company: Love Marriage by Monica Ali

Scribner Book Company: Love Marriage by Monica Ali

Scribner Book Company: Love Marriage by Monica Ali

Love Marriage

by Monica Ali

Even at 400-plus pages, by book's end, readers will miss the Ghorami and Sangster clans of Monica Ali's addictively readable, shrewdly insightful, subversively humorous novel Love Marriage. Yasmin Ghorami and Joe Sangster are in love, engaged to be married in the months ahead. They're both physicians, working in the same London hospital. Yasmin is 26, specializing in geriatrics; Joe is three years older, in obstetrics and gynecology. Both still live with their parents.

Yasmin's father, Shaokat, is also a doctor--a GP--and her mother, Anisah, is a homemaker and neighborhood do-gooder. They emigrated from Calcutta in their 20s, their union the stuff of oft-repeated family lore, championing a love-conquers-all tale of poor orphan Shaokat who overcame indigence and captured the heart of wealthy Anisah. The family lives in Tatton Hill, a middle-class London neighborhood that allows them to "not mix with other Bengalis, other Muslims, Indians," although Anisah remains a devoutly practicing Muslim. After Yasmin came Arif, now 24, who remains jobless--even worse, directionless, with a less-than-useful sociology degree; his unproductive presence at home relentlessly disappoints and agitates their father.

Joe is white, isn't Muslim, but being a doctor makes him "automatically suitable." He resides in posh Primrose Hill in his mother's home. Harriet--or Harry, as Joe calls her--raised Joe alone with utter devotion while also establishing a noteworthy career as an "activist, writer and intellectual" ("Do try to be accurate," she corrects a journalist who refers to her as a "feminist activist and commentator"). She's currently working on a book about men's relationships with their penises, filled with "de-eroticized shots of the appendages." Joe has recently, reluctantly started therapy for his sex addiction, something he most understandably doesn't want to bring to his impending nuptials.

It's the fall of 2016, and though Yasmin and Joe thought they wanted something simple--and soon--their wedding is set for June of the following year. The weather will be so much nicer then, since Harry decides she'll host the event in her lavish garden. Anisah would like an imam-led nikah--a Muslim ceremony. Plans continue to move along, never mind the couple's preferences. At least the families are bonding.

And then Joe admits to a hook-up that inexplicably "just happened" with a hospital co-worker--really, how was Yasmin not supposed to find out? Understandably shocked, Yasmin attempts to forgive him, but... well... things keep happening, most not even related to the infidelity, but distracting enough to make true reconciliation challenging. Arif moves out after Shaokat's intolerance of him turns violent. Anisah leaves next--and she lands at Joe's mother's--fueling Shaokat's angry, lonely drinking. Meanwhile, Harry doesn't understand why Joe has become so peevish lately. And then there's Yasmin, who might be having some unspeakable (for now) experiences of her own.

Ali's spotlight favors Yasmin, but so much of the supporting cast is memorable--and made brilliantly useful in cleverly ciphering Very Important Issues. Harry's literary friends--prize-winning, published, wannabe--debate authenticity, while slyly, accurately skewering the publishing industry. Harry regularly trips over her wealthy, white, appropriating privilege. Various hospital patients and staff expose the cracks and failures of the healthcare system; 96-year-old Mrs. Antonova proves especially unforgettable while the clinical director shows himself to be a hypocritical, sexist poser. Race, class, identity, all manner of family dysfunction, are deftly imbedded throughout a multilayered narrative in which every character longs for mutual understanding. Even love marriages can't guarantee meaningful connection.

Ali returns to bookshelves after an 11-year gap since her last novel, Untold Story (2011), and almost two decades since Brick Lane (2003) debuted to sensational attention. Her absence from fiction seems to have further honed her already proven storytelling prowess--Granta lauded her as one of their "Best Young British Novelists" in 2003. Ali's meticulous attention to detail ensures readers will get to know fully realized characters: Yasmin takes a study break from her medical texts with a gossip magazine she found discarded on the subway in which she can identify only one celebrity; she prefers "real people" stories that make her grateful she has "nothing to worry about." Anisah attempts to read Harry's first book--"about all her lovers... all very feminist"--while standing over an open rubbish bin; she lets the book drop there when she notices Arif is watching. Joe confesses to Yasmin that while Harry is "a bit disappointed [Yasmin is] not more Indian," Shaokat and Anisah "are authentic enough to give her an orgasm."

As pages swiftly turn, Yasmin will worry plenty, Anisah will define her own feminism, Joe and Harry will face authentic revelations. What might initially read like casual observations get scrupulously, astutely unpacked through Ali's engrossing, sometimes scathing, reveals. Already a bestseller in the U.K. where it was first published, U.S. audiences, too, will surely welcome the extended Ghorami and Sangster clans' trials and tribulations with plenty of warm, empathetic recognition. --Terry Hong

Scribner, $27.99, hardcover, 432p., 9781982181475, May 3, 2022

Scribner Book Company: Love Marriage by Monica Ali

Monica Ali: 'I need to write. No matter what'

(photo: Yolande De Vries)

Monica Ali's debut novel, Brick Lane, earned a Man Booker shortlist nod and recognition for Ali as one of Granta's 2003 "Best Young British Novelists." Born to a Bangladeshi father and British mother, Ali was raised in England, Oxford-educated and now lives in London. Her long-awaited fifth novel, Love Marriage (Scribner, May 3, 2022), features a 20-something London couple, Yasmin Ghorami and Joe Sangster, and their extended family and friends, through whom Ali deftly explores identity, race and class.

Brick Lane brought you a lot of praise, and perhaps not a little criticism. How did the attention your debut novel garnered affect your writing that followed?

So you're starting with the easy questions, huh? The question is usually slanted towards "did it put pressure on you/your writing." But strangely enough, I don't think it did. I never thought about "building on" the success of Brick Lane, turning it into some kind of brand. That would obviously have been the smart move commercially. And I was aware of that. But I'm a writer, not a marketing machine. So I have always just followed my own path, my own interests, for better or worse.

Your previous four novels were regularly spaced: Brick Lane (2003), Alentejo Blue (2006), In the Kitchen (2009) and Untold Story (2011). Love Marriage arrives more than a decade later. I read that you stopped writing after a "'catastrophic' loss of confidence" following reactions to Untold Story. How were you able to start again?

Yes, it was a downwards spiral, because when I stopped writing I became depressed. And the depression fed into the lack of confidence. One thing that helped me a great deal in coming out of that cycle was attempting to write television drama. Because I was watching a lot of telly! As depressed people sometimes do. I thought--maybe I could do that. I started reading a lot of scripts and taught myself--it's an entirely different craft--then I worked with a number of production companies. I had scripts commissioned, but nothing ever made it to the screen. Which was fine by me. I loved the process, loved working with other people; it's much more collaborative, obviously, than writing a novel. And it made me realize I need to write. No matter what. So it kind of kick-started me into writing prose again. Now the TV rights to Love Marriage have been auctioned and I'm working with New Pictures and writing the adaptation. So it's all come back around again.

I also found this fabulous, poignant, maddening quote addressing the diverse topics of your past work: "I think I was really naive in thinking that I could write about whatever I wanted, like a white male writer can." Will you (please) continue to write whatever you want? 

I don't think I can/could do otherwise. It would mean that the work lacked integrity. I guess the hard part, for me, psychologically, was not the criticism per se. (Although I'm no more partial to it than anyone else!) It was the sense that people were saying that I wasn't being "authentic." But, as I've said before and no doubt will say again, I'm not authentically one thing or another. I'm both [Asian and white]. And I'm glad to be both.

"Authenticity" is currently a Very Important Publishing Topic (might I add, handled with such finesse in Love Marriage). I'm sure readers and critics have already commented, even lauded you, on your return to the familiar in Love Marriage. Did you ever feel pressure that you had to narrate a Bengali immigrant/Oxbridge British cast?

It's funny, I haven't sat down and read the reviews. Yet. I may do so at some point. But my publisher sends me snippets and people tell me things and so on. Recently, we went to Bristol to visit my in-laws and my mother-in-law, because she's proud that I've published another book, had pinned a review on the fridge. So I couldn't avoid it. The headline was something like: Brick Lane for 2022, but with more sex. 

It's such an inane, vapid, stupid summation that I almost choked on my toast. Let's pause and think about it for a moment. In Brick Lane, Nazneen, the protagonist, is born and brought up in rural Bangladesh. She's uneducated, speaks no English, has an arranged marriage to a much older man, moves to an impoverished area of London, lives within a very tight-knit working-class community and is deeply religious. 

Yasmin, the protagonist of Love Marriage, is born and brought up in London (by parents who are originally from Calcutta), is highly educated, a professional young woman who falls in love with Joe, a fellow doctor of around the same age. She lives in a middle-class London suburb where everyone minds their own business. She has few, if any, religious inclinations. 

The common factor is that they're both brown. And, yes, Yasmin has Bengali heritage, but her parents are from India, which is in fact a different country. It's a bit like lumping Irish and English in all together. There are similarities but...

What's interesting to me is this: If a white writer had written about a white, working-class family, living in a poor, tight-knit community, perhaps religious (maybe Irish Catholic?) 20 years ago, and then wrote an entirely different novel about a family that was also white, but middle class, professional, living in a prosperous suburb and with an entirely different set of issues and family dynamics... would that writer be asked why she was going back to "familiar territory," as I have been asked about Love Marriage?

I can't imagine that happening, because I think all white families are automatically granted their uniqueness, but brown families are first and foremost brown.

Creating ensemble casts (of all backgrounds) is undoubtedly one of your most affecting talents as a writer. How do you logistically manage? Do you use charts, diagrams, other visuals to organize?

I don't have charts or diagrams. I do spend a lot of time with characters before I commit anything to the page. I have to know a lot about them--and most stuff doesn't end up on the page. But if you don't know your characters then there's little hope your readers ever will. I have to be able to hear how they speak, the rhythm of their language, the cadence of their voice. Then I'm ready to get started.

Is it too soon to ask if you're contemplating a sequel? The final chapter title is "Possibility"...!

Ooh, I love it, I hadn't thought of the final chapter title in that way. I'm thinking what the first chapter title of the sequel could be... Seriously, I haven't thought about a sequel because my head is very much in the adaptation.

If not a sequel yet, what are you writing next? 

I've just agreed to write a short story for a Virago collection to be published next year. All the story titles will be synonyms for "virago." My title will be "Bitch." But that's as much as I'm telling right now! --Terry Hong

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