Source: we received this book from the author for review purposes.
In The First we meet Reena, she is a college student who comes from a conservative Pakistani family, and is clear from the beginning that this means she doesn’t enjoys the same liberties that any regular young student would. One day in class she meets Brian, he is the all American blue eyed guy and they instantly hit it off and start dating, but there is always the concern that Reena’s family won’t approve of him.
At this point you may think you know what this book is about, girl meets boy, girl and boy fall for each other, girl’s family opposes the relationship, girl and boy fight because of this, girl and boy reunite, and in the end -and against all odds- their love conquers all. But that is not the case here. This is a short novella but the story develops through years. I don’t really want to spoil the plot, but Reena and Brian don’t get together right away, in fact Brian is absent half the book. I think this story is more about Reena’s journey than anything else, the love story -or lack thereof- plays a secondary role.
I had several issues with the book; the first one is about the narration, this book is told in first person which is perfectly fine, however there is no description whatsoever, there is only dialogue, and this lack of description didn’t allow me to really know the characters. Yes, I could infer what they were thinking of feeling through dialogue, but I was never really sure. Is not just about what you say, is about how you say it, and since we don’t get to see inside the other character’s heads then we need to be told. This wasn’t the only issue I had with the writing style, but it was the biggest one.
I’m really glad the story didn’t turn out as I expected by reading the first chapters, at first I thought that she was going to confront her family to marry Brian, and all the time I was thinking “this is going to be a disaster” because Reena is so immature that there was no way that relationship was going to last. I think she suffered from lack of experience and from being too young and too sheltered, she has known Brian less than two months and she feels he is the love of her life and then things don’t go as planned and in less than two months she is agreeing to marry another guy, who by the way is a Pakistani from a family much like hers, and she agrees even though she is being complaining about her mother and how she is too set on her ways and unable to modernize her thinking, and even though just days ago she was absolutely in love with someone else.
Reena is an interesting character because -annoying personal traits aside- she is a great example of clashing cultures and the personal struggle of a woman who comes from a family with a culture completely different to the one they live in. Sometimes she behaved like she wanted to be American, she complained that her mother was too orthodox, she tells her that they have been living in America for ten years, is time to adapt to the American culture. If it took ten years to “modernize” and “adapt” there would be no Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, African-Americans, there would be no South, no Yankees, no anything, America is by definition multicultural. And why do people have to change their culture when they emigrate?
I don’t think she really believes what she was saying, or she didn’t mean it exactly as harsh as it sounded, but the fact that she says this, and then refuses to have sex before marriage because of cultural and religious reasons, and then accepts a marriage proposal from a Pakistani guy -a marriage that is borderline arranged because she wasn’t even sure he liked her- that is a perfect example of what I mean about the cultural struggles and the contradictions.
I liked all the Pakistani aspects of the story, she gives details about clothing and traditions and I really would have liked to see more of that. Sometimes the portrayal of the culture seemed a bit stereotyped: the nagging mother who wants her to marry a nice Pakistani guy, have babies and be a good wife, the husband who wanted a wife at home having babies, then there are the white guys who only think of sex and want to party all night; that was a bit annoying because I think there is so much more to it, this is such a rich culture and I believe Saadia missed an opportunity to show us a more real and honest view of it.
In general this story didn’t work for me, there were so many decisions Reena made I didn’t agree with or even understood; and then there were some aspects of the plot that to me seemed absurd, especially towards the ending when it becomes an absolute cliché. I would like to give a complete run down of things I didn’t like, but I don’t want to give away the ending or the book in general. There is a secondary story involving her best friend Sofia and that was even worse, if Reena was immature then Sofia was ridiculous; she does something life-changing without even consulting with her husband first, and when he gets mad she defends herself by saying that this will bring them luck and to leave all to faith. It was plain crazy.
As I said, this book didn’t work for me; I think there was a lot of potential left unexploited, maybe a longer and more detailed book would have been better, but in the end I wasn’t able to relate to Reena and the somewhat original plot was ruined by a very obvious ending.
Review by Brie
Reena Jamil doesn’t do taboo. She’s a simple girl from a conservative Pakistani family who wants nothing more than for her to settle down and marry a nice Pakistani guy. But, unknown to her family, she falls for a white guy - something that would shock her parents. Deeply in love, yet torn over her familial duty, Reena must decide whether to pick love over obligation.
Meanwhile, her best friend, Sofia Azeem, is facing her own romantic struggles. She’s in love with her best friend from high school - but the feeling’s not mutual. Or is it?
Reena and Sofia each have soul searching to do. Should Reena choose the man she loves or accept a guy her parents would approve? Should Sofia wait for her feelings to be reciprocated or should she move on? Will each woman get a happy ending?
Its premise is a clash of cultures but The First is also a story about relationships, friendship, love, marriage, new beginnings, and most importantly, a story of hope. Saadia Ahmed’s unique cultural perspective makes this romance novella a fun and insightful read.
Saadia Ahmed; March 4, 2011.