Review of Monica Ali’s Love Marriage – a culture shock engagement | Monica Ali
In the decade since her first bestseller in 2003, Brick Lane, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and then made into a film, Monica Ali produced three more novels. First came Alentejo Blue, loosely related vignettes set in a Portuguese village that bore almost no relation in style, conviction or tone to Brick Lane. In the Kitchen followed, a twisty tale of a London chef in crisis, then Untold Story, a bizarre novel in which Princess Diana fakes her death and moves to a small town in America. Critical responses to all three have been mixed (The New York Times called Untold Story “ridiculously fanciful”). There was a 10 year gap. And now Ali is back with Love Marriage, a novel about the rocky engagement of Yasmin Ghorami, a 26-year-old trainee doctor whose parents are from Kolkata, and fellow doctor Joe Sangster, the upper-middle class son of an outspoken feminist. author.
As the book opens, Yasmin nervously anticipates a family presentation dinner at her future mother-in-law’s huge house in Primrose Hill. Although Harriet still resorts to caterers, Yasmin’s mother, Anisah, a quirky-dressed housewife with “a knack for being herself,” spent 10 hours cooking (“shukto, alu dom, dal pakori, kachori…”). Yasmin knows her parents will insist on leaving south London by car early, with carrier bags full of Tupperware. The elegant Harriet, who spends her life writing liberal guilt essays while throwing lavish literati parties, will “gracefully hide her amusement”.
Harriet is, in fact, thrilled at the prospect of her new culturally diverse family ties. One wonders if the Ghoramis feel so enthusiastic. Harriet is famous for a photograph taken in the 1990s in which she posed nude, staring defiantly at the camera. Yasmin’s younger brother, Arif, an unemployed sociology graduate, is delighted to have found this image online. He also spotted their mother reading one of Harriet’s books above the kitchen bin, before throwing it in. So the stage is set for comedic cultural clashes, generational tensions, embarrassment, misunderstandings, conflict, and hopefully resolution. Publishers fought to buy Love Marriage and the BBC made a drama out of it. It’s not hard to see why. It is an exploration of multicultural British modernity, love, gender, class, politics, faith and family. But how does this work in literary terms?
Yasmin, who plans to specialize in geriatric medicine, is sweet and kind, a soothing one who has spent her life trying to live up to the expectations of her father Shaokat, a south London GP who rose from orphan poverty. “Baba” likes to spend his evenings reflecting on obscure medical cases with his daughter, who is increasingly wondering if she really wanted to be a doctor. During the agonizing introductory dinner, the two mothers, for very different reasons, hijack the wedding preparations; but then an unlikely camaraderie arises between them. Fueled by Harriet and her artist friends, Anisah begins a feminist revival, abruptly – and it’s a bit of a credibility stretch – moving into Harriet’s house. Yasmin’s growing bewilderment at her mother’s behavior is tempered by a personal crisis: her perfect fiancé, Joe, admits to having a one-night stand. Yasmin responds with her own sexual rebellion, and soon no one behaves like they should: there is a lesbian affair, a shock pregnancy, two fights, a bloodstained room, several racist incidents and deep family reproaches, including a particularly heartbreaking revelation about how Yasmin’s parents really met.
There are riches here. All the components of modern identity are posed: race, class, gender, faith, sexuality. Ali explores generational and cultural tensions, as well as contemporary political issues such as Islamophobia, NHS underfunding and Brexit. There’s a big cast and chapters jump between multiple perspectives (we even get, oddly enough, Joe’s psychotherapist), but perhaps because we’re getting into so many heads, often fleetingly, the complexities start to flatten out. Joe, for example, never quite leaves the psychological diagnosis that defines him. So it’s hard to invest too deeply in the engagement, or in Yasmin’s feelings about it. Peripheral characters sometimes seem to exist to make a point. A performance artist called Flame, one of Harriet’s friends, is nothing more than a plot to fuel Anisah’s journey, and Yasmin’s best friend Rania, an alleged “Muslimah Kim Kardashian” who despairs of confessional dating sites, tends to appear as a sounding board, or to demonstrate a great cultural point. A scene in which Rania suddenly decides to drink alcohol seems strange at first. Later, when video footage of her drunkenness sparks furor on social media over feminism and faith, it’s hard to ignore the author’s puppeteer tweaking the strings.
A notable exception is Baba. Tormented by blockages, he is a fully realized and often moving character. He loves his children deeply but wants them to succeed so badly, to prove to the world that he is worthy, strong and secure, that he risks completely alienating them. He is also furious with his wife. The story goes that the two met in a library, a “love match”. Anisah’s wealthy family reluctantly accepted him because he was smart – they even paid for his medical school fees (he paid them back, he boasts, with interest). This journey out of poverty explains why he is so hard on his son. Arif feels hopeless, angry, unwanted and insecure, but Baba sees only a lack of motivation. The tension between the two escalates until one day it explodes. It’s the kind of complex emotional authenticity that has made Brick Lane such a hit.
This novel is largely engaging, entertaining and relevant and there will be a lot of love for it, maybe prizes. Ali is a good storyteller, sometimes illuminating, but there’s a sense of a smaller, tighter, more devastating romance lurking here. As it stands, emotional punches can get a bit lost in the middle of padding and creating dots.