Review: “THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST” by Mohsin Hamid

Reluctant Fundamentalist

When I was a third of the way through Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the narrator, a young Pakistani man named Changez, tells the American stranger about how he first learned of the destruction of the World Trade Center. While on a business trip to Manila, he turned on the television in his room and saw the towers fall.

“I stared as one–and then the other–of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.”

The novel begins a few years after 9/11. Changez happens upon the American in Lahore, invites him to tea and tells him the story of his life in the months just before and after the attacks. That monologue is the substance of Hamid’s elegant and chilling little novel.

In 2001, as he explains, Changez was hardly a radical. Fresh out of Princeton, he was living in New York City and working as a financial analyst. He appears to have been something of an enigma until his reaction to the attacks–a sudden smile–pierces the shell. It seems to have come as a surprise even to himself, and while hardly endearing, it sets his tale in motion.

A less sophisticated author might have told a one-note story in which an immigrant’s experiences of discrimination and ignorance cause his alienation. But Hamid’s novel, while it contains a few such moments, is distinguished by its portrayal of Changez’s class aspirations and inner struggle. His resentment is at least in part self-loathing, directed at the American he’d been on his way to becoming. For to be an American, he declares, is to view the world in a certain way–a perspective he absorbed in his eagerness to join the country’s elite.

However, his indoctrination was never total. Starting with his job interview at Underwood Samson, a small firm that appraises businesses around the world, and a post-graduation trip to Greece with friends from Princeton, Changez maintains an outsider’s double perspective. One the trip he is smitten with Erica, one of the other travelers, but is also bothered by his rich friends’ profligate spending and the condescension with which they give orders to anyone they’ve paid for a service.

“I…found myself wondering by what quirk of human history my companions–many of whom I would have regarded as upstarts in my own country, so devoid of refinement were they–were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.”

Yet even as he recognizes the foibles of that ruling class, Changez, who comes from a high-status but downwardly mobile family, also aspires to join it. Given his oft-mentioned phenomenal aptitude for his new job and a talent for winning over people, that goal seems all but guaranteed.

By the time he reaches Manila, where he is sent to appraise a recording business, Changez finds himself trying to assert his Americanness. Suddenly he is the one ordering around men his father’s age. Unnerved when a jeepney driver gives him a hostile look, Changez puzzles over its significance until he glances at one of his colleagues and feels his own hostility toward the other man’s “oblivious immersion” in his work.

So which is he, the ignorant master or the canny subaltern? And has he sacrificed his identity in pursuit of status? Changez has already begun to ask himself these questions when he sees the towers fall. And in the wake of the attacks, as tensions escalate between India and Pakistan, and the United States is meanwhile caught up in patriotic displays that strike Changez as a dangerous form of nostalgia, he loses interest in his work. Assigned to help appraise a publishing company in Valparaiso, Chile, he spends his time visiting Pablo Neruda’s house and lunching with the publisher, who compares Changez to a janissary–one of the Christian youths captured and then conscripted by the Ottomans, compelled to do battle against their own civilization.

And then there is the matter of Erica, who is friendly with Changez but mourning the death of her former boyfriend, Chris, from lung cancer. Changez is polite and formal; Erica is uninhibited, going topless, for instance, on a beach in Greece. The two become intimate, but she is haunted by Chris, and after 9/11 her sadness mysteriously turns pathological. She lands in an institution, then disappears.

This part of the story seems a bit too convenient–Erica’s obsession with the past engineered to dovetail with America’s nostalgia and with Changez’s yearning for a lost Lahore–while her disappearance neatly parallels his departure from America. (The protagonists’ names get no points for subtlety either.) Hamid, who himself attended Princeton and worked in corporate America, aptly captures the ethos and hypocrisies of the Ivy League meritocracy, but less so its individual members. Throughout the book, secondary characters are sketched rather than distinctively rendered.

We never learn the American man’s identity, yet Changez regularly interrupts the story to address him. Perhaps, it is suggested, he had been pursuing Changez, who has become a leader of anti-American protests. Apparently, the man is “on a mission“–and he may be carrying a weapon. While these interruptions came too frequently for my taste, they do lend the tale an Arabian Nights-style urgency: the end of the story may mean the death of the teller.

It seems that Hamid would have us understand the novel’s title ironically. We are prodded to question whether every critic of America in a Muslim-majority country should be labeled a fundamentalist, or whether the term more accurately describes the capitalists of the American upper class. Yet these queries seem less interesting than the novel itself, in which the fundamentalist, and potential assassin, may be sitting on either side of the table.

 

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Review: Luck Be A Lady (Rules for the Reckless #4) by Meredith Duran

Luck Be A Lady

For a good story, an antagonist is important as a protagonist. In Lady Be Good, Meredith Duran made her heroine overcome a greedy crime lord uncle and a snooty boss lady before she got her HEA. In this next book, however, the characters are properly humanized and by the time I finished reading Luck Be A Lady, I was thoroughly enchanted by Mr. Nicholas O’Shea and Ms. Catherine Eversleigh.

Ms. Duran understood that Nick and Catherine might not make the most sympathetic of protagonists so the book starts off with prologues that show us why all that Catherine seems to care about is her family’s auction house and why Nick had to turn to a life of crime. The events of Luck Be A Lady are set in the immediate aftermath of Lady Be Good. Lilah and Christian are off on their honeymoon and Catherine still needs to find a way to save Eversleigh’s from the hands of her crook of a brother. While her father groomed her to take over after his death, his will mandated that she be married before she gets access to her share.  To that end, she turns to Nicholas O’Shea, portrayed here as a benevolent revolutionary who only wants the best for his people. Oh, and he also runs the biggest (illegal) gambling den in all of London.

I was very excited to read this story because I had never read a historical romance where neither the hero nor the heroine was a member of the aristocracy. Catherine proposes a marriage of convenience to the only man she thought could protect her from her asshole brother and still give her a free rein in running her business. She never had any aspirations to be a woman of leisure and is shown as treating her beauty as an inconvenience. Nick accepts her proposal because he has some issues with a local government functionary and he had been fascinated with Catherine ever since his niece had gone to work for her.

To ensure that the marriage can’t be challenged by Catherine’s brother, Ms. Duran writes a very innovative, hilarious and yet sensual “consummation” scene that was a highlight of the book. However, as the story progresses there is still a lot of “will they or won’t they” kind of sexual tension that builds up as Nick and Catherine get to know each other better. Catherine cuts a very sympathetic figure and I really admired her single-minded focus on her business and how she refused to bow to society’s expectations and become just a wife. Nick’s reformation is also very convincing. His past transgressions were watered down to justify his actions, but that was expected.

The ending was very satisfying, poignant yet hilarious, and left me asking questions like “Does a grand gesture count if you have to go point it out?” Nick and Catherine come out as an unlikely match that brought out the best in each other. The fact that neither paid any mind to their class gap or what society would say about it reminded me of Chuck and Blair (one of my all-time favourite couples) and Nick’s arc about going legit was also very reminiscent of Roarke (favourite hero EVER). The story did leave a couple of threads dangling loose and it’s times like these that I wish Ms. Duran would set her sequels in a more interconnected universe. I would love to know more about what happens next in Nick and Catherine’s story.

Luck Be A Lady was a fun, unconventional historical romance that will stay with me because of its innovative handling of the usual tropes of a marriage of convenience and redemption. Nick and Catherine push each other into becoming more fearless and still desirous of the ties that came with marriage in the Victorian age. If that isn’t true love, I don’t know what is. I’m hoping Ms Duran succumbs to the trend and writes them a worthy epilogue!

Review: ‘Fool Me Twice’ (Rules for the Reckless #2) by Meredith Duran

Fool Me Twice

I don’t know why I’ve been so bipolar when it comes to Meredith Duran’s books. I absolutely adored her novella Your Wicked Heart. And then I really didn’t like That Scandalous Summer. With Fool Me Twice, I am happily back in the “Love Her” camp. Probably because it has a tortured hero and a redheaded heroine, but moving on. For fans of Ms. Duran, the title makes it obvious that this story is about Alastair de Grey, the Duke of Marwick, who spectacularly lost the plot after news of his late wife’s betrayal hit him. Of course, he had to be paired with the mysterious Ms. Olivia ‘Mather’.

Olivia Holladay is the proverbial damsel in distress. A powerful man wants her dead and while she may not know why, she knows who he is (Cabinet Minister Baron Bertram), and how to make him pay for it. Sick of looking over her shoulder, Olivia decides to protect herself. To that end, she gains employment in the Duke of Marwick’s household, hoping to find something that she can use to blackmail the baron. The Duke’s reputation as a political mover and shaker is well-known, but, as only Olivia knows, he also has a good reason to hate Bertram.

While her plan may have been to deceive and steal from the man, Olivia is a punctilious person at heart and she is shocked at the state of disarray she finds in the duke’s house. Marwick hasn’t left his suite in months. Things are so bad that a desperate butler hires her as the temporary housekeeper. And although she’s supposed to be concentrating on her search, Olivia finds herself at the mercy of her worst flaw, a need to “interfere and manage and fix things.” Not just the state of the house and the insolent servants, but the master of the house too.

Alastair’s state of mind is extremely dark, especially when we discover that his agoraphobia is based on the fear that if he goes anywhere near the people who helped his wife betray him,  he’ll kill them. As he becomes more rational, it is also obvious that he is a self-involved asshole. Ironically, Marwick’s thwarted pride and legitimate pain combine to make him simultaneously both infuriating and sympathetic. It is dishonest to pretend that mental illness provokes only kindness and understanding in those who deal with its victims, so kudos to Ms. Duran for striking that delicate balance. Besides, butt-headedness makes a character seem more real than pathos does.

The interactions between Marwick and Olivia begin as hostile confrontations and evolve into convoluted negotiations often prefaced by him asking “Didn’t I sack you?”  Their relationship is complicated and subtly hilarious. Olivia’s campaign to roust Marwick consists of serial invasions of his space, each more entertaining than the last. Whether she is rescuing his books, critiquing his grooming, or admiring a nipple, Olivia is a hoot. Marwick’s responses range from rage to incredulity as he resists the change that Olivia impels.

Yet, change is inevitable. I love this trope and the way Ms. Duran employs it here. The give and take between Olivia and Marwick is pivotal to the plot and enables a slow reveal of their checkered pasts. But there is far more going on than lively banter and extended internal monologues. There is a point in the story when the action shifts from private to public in a way that almost draws a line through the middle of the narrative. Here is the point where Marwick evolves into Alastair for me. This dichotomy isn’t necessarily a flaw but it is very strongly defined. Edgy banter gives way to darker themes, and the emphasis shifts from Marwick’s emotional health to his moral choices just as Olivia’s situation is further imperiled. The danger to Olivia is real as is Marwick’s fear of disgrace, and there are a number of twists before the story winds to a close. However, emotional and intellectual sparring take center stage through most of the novel, and the usual quick shedding of clothes and inhibitions is replaced by welcome restraint. The only striptease is of the soul-baring sort that builds the very best kind of tension.

In spite of her cleverness and down-to-earth pragmatism, Olivia is an innocent, and the author conveys the normalcy of this state by making it something Olivia herself is indifferent to. After all, she is fighting for her life. Virginity is just the default position, so to speak, and we only become aware of it when Alastair does. When the Duke recognizes her innocence, it pleases him but it doesn’t really affect her value to him. Virginity is more an incidental attribute than virtue incarnate. Ultimately, it is Olivia’s utter isolation and her ability to maintain her self-respect in the face of real danger that moves and impresses Alastair. Although their attraction is undeniable, it is never separated from their emotions.

He grabbed her wrists and bowed his head to kiss each one, like a vassal paying tribute. She watched him do so and felt, for a dizzying moment, taller than him, a presence larger and grander than her flesh could contain. By his own account, he had seen her, recognized her, as brave, intelligent, resourceful. And he wanted her, against his will. Yes, let him bow his head; let him admit to being conquered.  

When Olivia and Alastair finally have sex, the act is deeply passionate and convincingly unique to them. In a relationship characterized by intermittent bullying and an often brutal frankness, they are honest when it counts the most. Ms. Duran writes a gorgeous sex scene that is beautifully integrated into the story, and then follows it up with some sparkling humour.

She felt a glimmer of mischief.

“You’re not feeling shy, are you?” To her amazement–and, yes, her delight–the color rose in his face.

“Shy, by God–”

“You’re avoiding my eyes,” she said. “You could not have hustled me out of that flat more quickly this morning. And now you’re refusing to have a conversation. Are you afraid that you disappointed me? For I assure you, it wouldn’t have been possible. I wasn’t expecting much-”

He made a choking sound.

“Oh dear.” She reached for her discarded cup of tea, brought an hour ago by the obsequious conductor. “Would you like some of this? And don’t misunderstand me; it was quite nice. Last night, I mean.”

  And that is one of the reasons why I absolutely adore Fool Me Twice. The preceding story in this series painted Alastair in a very negative light, so it was a bit weird to accept him as a hero in the next book. Olivia, however, runs completely true to form. While I suppose each of the three Meredith Duran novels I’ve read so far more than stands alone, Fool Me Twice is my absolute favourite of the lot.

I would recommend it to avid fans of historical romance who enjoy complicated relationships with a lot of edgy banter, who aren’t nit-picky about the level of historical detail in the story but still expect a sense of authenticity and good writing.