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A young woman, torn between the certainties of life in India and the potentially liberating challenges of America, undergoes an arranged Islamic marriage—with disastrous results.

As in so many similar stories, the writer is most effective in describing local customs, ceremonies, locations (the city of Hyderabad), and cultures—here, the workings of an Islamic society in a majority Hindu country. But first-timer Ali is less successful in telling a compelling tale or creating credible characters. Her protagonist, 19-year-old Layla, has since childhood spent half of each year in the US with her mother and father, a doctor, and half the year in India. She appreciates the freedoms and opportunities the US offers, but also enjoys the comforting rituals and rules of India. As a result, both to please her mother and to secure a home for herself, she agrees to marry Sameer, a college graduate. But in the year between her engagement and marriage, she has an affair with Nate, an American, and when she arrives in India for the wedding, she’s pregnant. Soon, her bleeding suggests a miscarriage, but, for a doctor’s daughter, Layla is strangely reluctant to seek medical help, though everyone seems to know about the hemorrhaging. The wedding takes place, but that very night Sameer finds letters from Nate. He promises to forgive Layla but fails to consummate the marriage. While Sameer works to get money to pay for their trip to Madras to obtain his visa, Layla enjoys the household routine and religious rituals. But Sameer keeps disappearing, makes no sexual overtures, and their trip to Madras, supposed to be a honeymoon, reveals the truth about him when his male lover follows them there. But Sameer and both families are determined to continue the marriage, even though Islamic law allows divorce. As Layla finds herself a prisoner, tensions between Muslims and Hindus heat up, a favorite cousin is raped and murdered, and, realizing how vulnerable women are, Layla decides to escape.

However well intended, overwrought and unconvincing.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-374-19562-5
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2003