This is a love story on so many planes: young love, parental love, familial love, love of friends… Layla is the protagonist, whose arranged marriage to Rafiq brought her from Hyderabad, India to California, to make a life and raise a family: Hadia, Huda and Amar. When Rafiq accepted a position that forced him to travel for weeks at a time, he made the sacrifice to better provide for his family. But Layla, reflecting on sleeping alone for the first time in her life, watches her husband early in the morning on the day of his first business trip. “His most beautiful face is his sleeping one, no stern expressions, just eyelids, lashes, defined nose, jawline. She pictures those cartoon cottages in shows her daughters watch, where a woman inside the cottage throws open the shutters and appears at the window singing. That is how it feels today to wake up and see his face, like a window in the room of her heart is being thrust open.” Reading this passage, I knew I was reading something very special.
Fatima Farheen Mirza has written an amazing portrait of a family. Her depiction of first love is heartbreaking in its beauty. She also plumbs with grace, what life in America was like for Muslims after 9/11. There were lots of food references, and I’m always happy with food as a presence in a book. I learned about wudhu, a ritual purification that precedes prayer; and a part of a Muslim wedding ceremony where the bride and groom look in a mirror together and the groom sees the bride’s face for the first time. (Although, I understand that this has become a rarity, as more and more couples spend time together before the wedding.) I loved Mr. Hansen, who Amar had in 3rd grade and was the first teacher to see beyond his shortcomings and find beauty and kindness in him. Finally, there is a passage where Baba (Rafiq) later in life explains his connection to God in a way that brought me much closer to understanding what the faithful feel: “People pray their entire lives for things they will never receive. There are people, my friends even, who say maybe there is no soul. Maybe there is no creator. My own son once said as much to me. But I have looked up at this sky since I was a child and I have always been stirred, in the most secret depth of me that I alone can access and if that is not my soul awakening to the majesty of my creator then what is it?”
I hope I have conveyed the degree to which I loved this book. I know the feeling I have now, having just finished reading, will fade over time, but I will remember the story and the characters and my affection for them. One of my favorite reads of the year, so far.
THE BEAUTY: The title is a reference to the Romeo and Juliet aspect of the plot with a nod to a song that Tony and Maria sing in West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein and Stehen Sondheim nailed it.
THE FOOD: At a point early in the book, Hadia is in her room packing for her first year at college, and hearing through her open window, the sounds of her brother Amar, and the Ali brothers playing basketball in the driveway below. She stops what she was doing to ask the boys if they wanted a drink. She says she’s making some for herself, which was true, but she knows that Abbas Ali loves mango lassi. The two share a moment while Abbas helps her prepare the drinks, and although they are physically in the same space, their private thoughts are about each other.
Mango Lassi Recipe
Yield: Makes about 2 cups
If you have cardamom pods, crush the pods to remove the seeds, then grind the seeds with a mortar and pestle.
1 C plain yogurt
½ C milk
1 cup chopped very ripe mango*, or a cup of canned mango pulp
4 tsp honey or sugar, more or less to taste
A dash of ground cardamom (optional)
Put mango, yogurt, milk, sugar and cardamom into a blender and blend for 2 minutes.
If you want a more milkshake consistency and it’s a hot day, either blend in some ice as well or serve over ice cubes.
Sprinkle with a tiny pinch of ground cardamom to serve.
The lassi can be kept refrigerated for up to 24 hours.
*Note: It took a very long time for my fresh mango to ripen, here in New England. In the future, I will use canned mango pulp that is readily available at my local supermarket. The flavor of my smoothie would have been improved if I had compensated for the lack of sweetness in my mango by adding more honey.
Looking down into the glass of partially consumed mango smoothie.