Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy appear to have attained the American dream. After immigrating to the United States from Egypt, Samir successfully works his way through a residency and launches his own medical practice as Nagla tends to their firstborn, Hosaam, in the cramped quarters of a small apartment. Soon the growing family moves into a big house in the manicured New Jersey suburb of Summerset, where their three children eventually attend school with Natalie Bradstreet, the daughter of their neighbors and best friends. More than a decade later, the family’s seemingly stable life is suddenly upended when a devastating turn of events leaves Hosaam and Natalie dead and turns the Al-Menshawys into outcasts in their own town.
What I Liked
This book is complex and moving in its exploration of the decay of a family’s foundation. Delving into each character’s past to unveil their motives, the book is a web of interconnected desires, mistakes, and fears that feels relatable and intelligent. By making her characters so utterly real, Hassib has created a story that, for me, was impossible not to empathize with. Confronted with inexplicable violence committed by a family member, who among us wouldn’t be afraid, confused, angry? The family’s struggle to remain glued together despite their vastly different reactions to the chaos around them is deeply moving without being sentimental or nostalgic. Hassib addresses the assumptions made about immigrants, and Muslim immigrants in particular, with a calm confidence that is both eye-opening and timely.
What I Didn’t Like
Like any book that is studded with such wonderfully believeable characters, the realness of their mistakes and flaws can occassionally make them unappealing and frustrating. As I read this book, I kept screaming at them in my head, “COMMUNICATE!!” While this could be difficult for some readers to get through, I think it’s also part of the point. It’s not a fairytale, and if making her readers a bit frustrated was Hassib’s way of driving her points home, I think she did an excellent job.
Another issue was that the book often feels as if it’s moving very slowly. Having such a heavy emphasis on emotion, memory, and each characters’ inner life means there’s a ton of time spent on monologuing and storytelling and much less spent on action. At times it felt as if the plot would never move forward, or would never be interesting enough to make up for how long it was taking to get there. While ultimately I didn’t find that to be the case, I did often find myself being gently lulled to sleep while reading yet another inner rant by one of the characters.
This book wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, and the slow-moving plot will probably turn a lot of people off, because despite the quality of the story, sometimes it’s just damn boring. However, I think it’s a great novel to read to better understand both the experience of Muslims living in America and the tragic ways a family must remake itself after something so devastating. It’s not perfect, but I still recommend it…probably as a “I need something calming to read before bed” book.
About the Author
Rajia Hassib was born and raised in Egypt and moved to the United States when she was twenty-three. She holds an MA in creative writing from Marshall University, and her short fiction has appeared in Upstreet, Steam Ticket, Bone Parade, and Border Crossing magazines. She lives in West Virginia.