This was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time but it was a tough, emotional read so I would be hesitant to recommend it without that warning. This isn’t a happy book even though there were moments of joy throughout. But the feelings of sadness and despair outweighed those for me and I was left thinking about this book for days afterwards.
When this book was released in 2019, it garnered a lot of buzz and for good reason. This is Etaf Rum’s first novel, which would be impressive enough, but by writing and releasing this book, she risked being ostracized from her community by breaking a “code of silence” that exists in the Palestinian American community she grew up in. Though this book is fiction, it’s part autobiographical, and it exposed me to a culture I knew nothing about. There are 3 narrators in this book, Isra, a Palestinian woman in 1990 whose parents have arranged a marriage for her to an American man named Adam; Deya, Isra’s daughter, in 2008, who is expected to also marry a man through an arranged marriage, and Fareeda, Adam’s mother, who has her own personal experiences to tell. This style works great because it allows the reader to learn how each character thinks and how they interact with each other. The story would feel less impactful if we only heard it from one point of view. It also injects an element of surprise into the story because the reader gets one point of view on a moment and then later sees how another character viewed that same moment and you realize that each woman experienced that moment differently. It is a very effective way to tell the story and I enjoyed the back and forth.
Of the three women, Isra’s story is the most heartbreaking to me. When her hope of a better life through marriage is seen to be a hopeless dream very early on in the book, you know her life isn’t going to be a good one. Her suffering is at times unbearable to read and the isolation and abuse she suffers at the hands of Adam and Fareeda is awful. I wanted to hate Fareeda and while my feelings about her haven’t changed much, I appreciated that I understood her motivations more by the end, even if I didn’t agree with her actions. What I found most frustrating about her and Khaled is the ignorance they showed towards their kids wanting a better life. They wanted their kids to have chances they didn’t have but they didn’t realize how badly they were treating them. All the kids wanted was the opportunity to live their lives the way they wanted to but their choice was taken away from them and the result was anger and abuse and hatred. You see how this continues to affect the family in 2008 with Fareeda’s actions towards Deya and her push to marry her off as soon as possible. Deya yearns for independence but feels stifled by Fareeda and the expectations put upon her by the family. This was the part of the book I found most fascinating. It’s hard to believe that arranged marriages still happen in modern times but for a lot of religions and cultures this is still something that is practiced and expected. I found myself rooting for Deya to find her voice and independence throughout the book but understand how hard it would be for her to break free from her family. The way Rum ties these three stories together is genius and this is a book with an ending that took my breath away. I closed the book and sat still and silent for several minutes afterwards so I could be alone with my thoughts. I can see why some would be upset or confused by the end but I loved it and think it was perfect.
It’s hard to believe that this is Etaf Rum’s first novel. The writing is beautiful and the story is powerful. I think this is a book that most people would learn something from and walk away having been grateful they read it. I would recommend this to any reader but especially for those in book clubs because there is a lot to discuss here. I’m really happy I read this book and I hope you will be too.
Favorite Quote: “Perhaps that was why she had spent her childhood with a book in front of her face, trying to make sense of her life through stories. Books were her only reliable source of comfort, her only hope.”
Author: Etaf Rum
Published: March 5, 2019
Rating: 4.5 Stars