I wanted to love this YA novel. Look at it! It’s beautiful and the premise is something I’d jump to read. Once you open the pages and dig in, however, you might find yourself wishing it were more.
Rukhsana Ali is a high school senior living in Seattle with her Muslim, Bengali family—and she has a huge secret. She’s dating a girl, Ariana, and she hasn’t yet come out to her parents. It’s completely uncharted territory for Rukhsana; with the exception of her sympathetic younger brother, there’s no one in her family’s conservative community with whom she feels she can be her true self. Just to be safe, she’s planning to wait until after she’s in college in California to tell her parents. Then, quite early in the book, her mother unexpectedly finds out about Ariana, and Rukhsana finds herself abruptly dragged to Bangladesh, where her parents plan to convince her that she’s not lesbian. It’s a scary, emotional, high-stakes situation and, despite the odds, Rukhsana finds unlikely allies in a country where it’s incredibly dangerous to be queer.
Like I said, it has a must-read premise. It’s a story I still want to read. The biggest problems lie with character development: Despite her story, Rukhsana isn’t even close to being a fully developed character. She abruptly changes her opinions and plans, oftentimes within a single page, for no apparent reason; she’s inconsistent without any context. Rukhsana is also an excellent student who has earned a full ride to the college of her choice, yet the reader never sees her studying or in class. It’s a strange omission for a book about a teenager who prioritizes school above everything else.
Rukhsana is allegedly in love—even the title of the book promises love, and I’m unconvinced that it actually delivered. Rukhsana’s love for Ariana drives most of the story’s action, but it is still unclear to me what she loves about Ariana. Readers won’t get any real sense of Ariana as a character either, apart from the fact that she is nice, white, and from a “progressive” family. In fact, all of the secondary characters are so alike that they’re nearly indistinguishable; there are few discernible differences between her friends in her various social circles.
Finally, Khan committed my number one pet peeve: throwing in violence in a way that feels gratuitous and like overt emotional manipulation. Spoiler alert: There is a rape and a murder in this novel, and both of them feel like desperate attempts to give the narrative greater impact. If your story doesn’t carry itself, don’t throw in assault and death to fix it. It won’t.
I feel terrible about giving this book, which promised so much, a negative review. I wanted to love this book…and I just couldn’t.
But kudos, again, to the artist who designed the jacket art. It drew me in and put a smile on my face
Book: The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali
Author: Sabina Khan
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