I must admit that I have commitment issues with books and if I am stressed out for whatever reason, I become a veritable serial dater. If a book fails to hold my interest, especially after the first hundred pages, I tend to cut my losses quickly and move on. This almost happened again while I read Brick Lane by Monica Ali. I had genuine difficulty with this book up until I got about two-thirds through the novel and today I was trying to think of why I failed to be pulled in.
The story's main character is Nanzeen, a woman from Bangladesh whose arranged marriage requires her to leave her small village and move to London. Once there, she deals with the many issues faced by a woman adapting to a new country and getting to know her husband. Luckily she has the support of other Bangladeshi women within her housing development who help her navigate through the streets of London and provide her with much needed entertainment. Her boredom during the day and general dissatisfaction with her ineffectual husband cause her to begin an affair with a young radical. His passion is intoxicating and Nanzeen finds herself unable to end their affair even though she knows that the relationship won't last.
Though Nanzeen is the lens through the reader views the world, I found her journey as a foreigner and a new bride less than compelling. Within the Bangladeshi community in London and in her homeland there exist women who provide the reader with far more entertainment than Nanzeen. Razia, the strident widow who embraces the independence that England allows her, is the opposite of Nanzeen who relies on the concept of Fate to sort out her problems. Also, Nanzeen's sister Hasina is another character who chooses a different path. She eloped with a man her family disapproved of and even in the face of the tragic events that follow and the lack of options for women in Bangladesh, she maintains her optimism. I found myself looking forward to reading Hasina's letters to Nanzeen because they provided an escape from Nanzeen's hopeless existence.
I haven't been altogether generous in my praise of this book and I think I know the reason why it received such a lukewarm reception. I really became more and more impatient with Nanzeen in her reliance on Fate to guide her in the right direction rather than listening to her own instincts and feelings. What bothered me most about this is that passivity is a quality that I dislike in myself and I have little tolerance for it in other people, fictional or otherwise. When Nanzeen is forced to act, the narrative became really engaging and the last third of the book made up for any moments of frustration. The book is well-written and paced in such a way that the reader is compelled to stay committed. Overall, reading this book was a positive experience because it allowed me to examine my own views on inaction and gave me hours of entertainment in the process. Though I had my problems with the main character, I would still recommend this book, just not wholeheartedly which probably reflects more on my biases rather than the talent of the author and the quality of the work.