REVIEW: More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood
Danyal Jilani doesn’t lack confidence. He may not be the smartest guy in the room, but he’s funny, gorgeous, and going to make a great chef one day. His father doesn’t approve of his career choice, but that hardly matters. What does matter is the opinion of Danyal’s longtime crush, the perfect-in-all-ways Kaval, and her family, who consider him a less than ideal arranged marriage prospect.
When Danyal gets selected for Renaissance Man, a school-wide academic championship, it’s the perfect opportunity to show everyone he’s smarter than they think. He recruits the brilliant, totally-uninterested-in-him Bisma to help with the competition, but the more time Danyal spends with her…the more he learns from her…the more he cooks for her…the more he realizes that happiness may be staring him right in his pretty face.
Trigger/Content warnings – revenge porn, discussion of the Bengal Famine of 1943, discussion of the Khataba raid, racism
Dear Mr. Masood,
My library got a copy of your debut book “More Than Just a Pretty Face” and the cover looked cute so I read the blurb. That sounded fun as well so I grabbed a loan and put it on my ereader. The day before I started it, I DNF’d another book I had thought I’d love. Needing a pick-me-up and something completely different, I thought, “Hmmm, what about this?” I dove into it and devoured it in a day.
The first thing I loved about the story is how it flips the usual gender stereotypes. Pakistani-American Danyal Jilani is the handsome one who clowns around and doesn’t care about school. People like him for his face and his charm but actually expect little from him. And he knows that and is cool with that because he cares little about what others seem to obsess over. He knows that his grades won’t get him into college but since he doesn’t want to go, no worries. His parents have urged and pleaded and tried to get him involved in becoming a doctor, or lawyer, or engineer – something that he will be able to support a family by doing. But Danyal’s dream is to be a chef and open his own restaurant.
To Danyal, food is what he understands and knows what to do with. Making wonderful South-Asian dishes or learning haute French cuisine in the restaurant in which he works part-time is what makes him happy and complete. Given his lower job prospects, Danyal isn’t exactly a choice pick in the arranged marriage mart. So when another young woman and her parents arrive at the Jilani house for a meeting, Danyal can’t help but ask this intelligent, confident, smart woman who is in Berkley why on Earth she’s lowering herself to consider him.
Bisma lays it on the line and from how she tells Danyal, he can tell that she’s had to do this numerous times. Since it’s told early in the story it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Bisma made one mistake in her past that has doomed her in the Pakistani-American community. In a moment of rebellion against her parents, she went to a party, drank alcohol, then slept with a white guy not realizing he’d filmed it and then posted it. As she tells him, Danyal watches her seem to shrink into herself. He’s stunned but also saddened for her and her burden. Not wanting her to think he despises her as much as everyone in her past appears to have done, he continues the coffee date.
When her father contacts Danyal and Danyal meets with her family alone, he’s horrified at how Bisma’s father treats her and refers to her. But Danyal also knows that to agree to marry Bisma out of pity or the desire to get her out of the family house would also be a mistake. But friends … he can easily offer to be that for her. In the meantime he continues his – he thinks – hopeless pursuit of the gorgeous sister of one of his best friends.
While lazing away in history class, Danyal ends up being nominated by his teacher for a school wide competition that everyone immediately knows he’ll screw up and end publicly humiliating himself. The way it’s done, I got the feeling that the teacher also doesn’t expect much if anything but is throwing Danyal this last lifeline to make something of himself. The teacher admires Winston Churchill but when Danyal tells his father about the rules and how he will need to write and present what amounts to a thesis on the man, Danyal is shocked at his father’s response and opinion of Churchill. His straight-laced father used the “F” word?
Now Danyal is faced with a choice. As he learns more about the Bengali Famine, he can’t turn away from the deaths of over three million people to fawn on Churchill as everyone expects. But if he tells his truths, then he risks failing the class, failing his senior year, and losing the young woman whose parents he desperately needs to impress. Needing help, he turns to Bisma to assist him with research and writing. Can Danyal be true to himself and his family who protested against the British Raj and by doing so, speak up for the voices of those who faced and continue to face oppression everywhere? And as the blurb says, will he begin to really see the woman sitting across the table?
There’s a lot in this story which is wrapped up with humor as well as insight. No one is perfect, the stereotyped model South-Asian super achiever is avoided, and Danyal made me cheer for him with his self-deprecation yet determination to follow his dream. His friendship with Zar and Sohrab is fun to read about but also shows the differences in the community. Zar is more freewheeling and wants to date before marriage while Sohrab is becoming more and more religious. The desi immigrant community plays a large role in the book and in the boys’ lives with many being the children of first generation immigrants. Danyal and his friends might at times chafe against the strictures of their parents and the Uncles and Aunties but they don’t openly rebel nor do they want to.
Danyal does a lot of self discovery before the book ends. His father has always lectured him but as Danyal comes to discover, his father has always believed Danyal could do anything just that Danyal didn’t want to. For the first time, Danyal feels that his father doesn’t believe that Danyal is capable of pulling off the risky decision Danyal makes about the thesis topic. One person who does is Bisma who drags Danyal into a library (his conversation with one of the librarians about this “Bookflix” is hilarious).
Their journey of discovery about each other is slow yet lovely. It’s Bisma who puts her finger on the reason why Danyal was unable to put aside the topic he decides to risk talking about. There is, however, a danger for Bisma in falling for Danyal. She knows the chance of any happy ending with him is scant and to glimpse a faint hope only to see it fade away will destroy her.
But is Bisma who Danyal really wants? He’s spent years mooning after “the perfect girl” and when he’s put on the marriage mart and confronted by his parents with the awkward conversation about what he wants in a bride, Bisma wasn’t who he described. Now, she’s all he can think of but the barrier between what he wants and what his parents will accept is sky high. Charged by Bisma’s feisty younger sister to fix this, Danyal pulls it out in spades. I agree with Bisma’s sister – “Fuck yes!”
Will there still be some issues with the desi community and Bisma’s past? Probably. Did I believe how much time the French chef spent talking with Danyal about his love life while they’re in the restaurant kitchen? Frankly no. Did I want to reach into the book and punch Bisma’s father in the throat? Oh, so hard. Did I get a happy smile when Danyal “fixes it” and his father announces his pride in his son? Yeppers. A-