Taslim, Priyanka. The Love Match. Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2023. 400 pp. ISBN 9781665901109 $19.99
The wedding scene in the opening chapter reminded my of the many receptions at the Knights of Columbus hall that I attended in my childhood–except at 18, my parents were encouraging me NOT to date, but to focus on my studies, sort of the opposite for Zahra, who still lives at home, works in a Pakistani tea shop, and has deferred her admission to Columbia to help support her family, since her dad has passed away. Her well-meaning mother has another idea: if Zahra makes a profitable match, the family will benefit. She uses WhatsApp to connect to the Auntie network, a circle of female friends and relatives looking to arrange the marriages of their daughters, and they come up with smart, wealthy and well-connected Harun Emon. The two teens are ambushed when their families set them up at a joint dinner. Harun appears to want to be there even less than Zahra, but both respect their elders and want to please their impossible to please families, so they agree to eight dates. Meanwhile, Zahra has a real connection with Nayim Aktar, the new dishwasher at the teashop. He is world traveled in a way that Zahra longs to be, and wants to be a musician like Zahra wants to be a published author. He is also a poor immigrant with no family and no reputation. They sneak out of a work a little early one night so she can work on a story and he can work on his music… but then she has a TGI Friday’s date where she and Harun cover a duet, and it’s fun. They bond over their losses (his girlfriend, her father) and they decide they are friends, at least, until they have a falling out. Everyone who’s ever read a fake dating novel knows where this is going, right?
I loved the Bangladeshi traditions set against contemporary culture: double standards, good Muslim girls who avoid pork and alcohol but sneak out on dates (or date other girls), and the juxtaposition of following your dreams and pleasing your family. I felt another pass from the editor would have elevated the novel. Lots of telling to set the scene at the beginning, the Auntie text thread would have been great at the end of each chapter. The book hits its stride about a third of the way in.
Pride and Prejudice references are not far off; Amma wants to make a good match for her daughter. “It is a truth universally acknowledged among Bangladeshis that a guest on one’s doorstep must be in want of at least two helpings of curry” is a very funny nod to Jane Austen’s most famous work.
At first, I was annoyed at having to look up so many words I didn’t know that were not described or defined in context, particularly, food and dress. And then I got over myself and started Googling–it is not the author’s job to do the work of white people to explain other cultures, and I now know what a bodna, janamaz. I made a quick adjustment to shari for sari and saa for chai, and understood bedisha to be an insult before I looked it up. I loved all the pop culture references: Frozen, Gilmore Girls, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie, Legally Blonde, Amar Jaane Tomake Dhake, Jane Austen, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, To All The Boys, Bridgerton (season two), Great Gatsby, even a subtle Star Wars allusion when Harun says he should call Zahra General instead of Princess when she takes charge of rearranging their arrangement.
This is truly a love letter to the Bangladeshi diaspora in Paterson New Jersey, describing the personalities, shops, culture and geography of the town that’s home to a large Bangladeshi population. Stereotypes exist in part because they are true, and Taslim vividly portrays the marriage market, arranged marriage, passive-aggressive parenting, generational culture wars, and class hierarchies. Overall this was an authentic, satisfying read, with a great plot twist at the end.
I received a free advance reader’s copy of #TheLoveMatch from #NetGalley.