REVIEW: Much Ado About Nada by Uzma Jalaluddin
Nada Syed is stuck. On the cusp of thirty, she’s still living at home with her brothers and parents in the Golden Crescent neighbourhood of Toronto, resolutely ignoring her mother’s unsubtle pleas to get married already. While Nada has a good job as an engineer, it’s a far cry from realizing her start-up dreams for her tech baby, Ask Apa, the app that launched with a whimper instead of a bang because of a double-crossing business partner. Nothing in her life has turned out the way it was supposed to, and Nada feels like a failure. Something needs to change, but the past is holding on too tightly to let her move forward.
Nada’s best friend Haleema is determined to pry her from her shell…and what better place than at the giant annual Muslim conference held downtown, where Nada can finally meet Haleema’s fiancé, Zayn. And did Haleema mention Zayn’s brother Baz will be there?
What Haleema doesn’t know is that Nada and Baz have a past—some of it good, some of it bad and all of it secret. At the conference, that past all comes hurtling at Nada, bringing new complications and a moment of reckoning. Can Nada truly say goodbye to once was or should she hold tight to her dreams and find their new beginnings?
Dear Ms. Jalaluddin,
This is the first novel of yours I’ve read but it won’t be the last. When I finished it, I felt as if I’d just taken a deep dive into several different issues – growing up in a South-Asian immigrant family in Toronto, social acceptance and bullying, childhood enemies to adult lovers, second chances, ableist discrimination, and women’s empowerment. I’ve seen this book described as a halal romance and want to let people know that there is no premarital sex. Trust me.
Nada Syed has been trapped into something she’s been avoiding for five years. Her ride-and-die friend Haleema has roped Nada into finally attending the big (and growing bigger each year) Muslim Conference being held in downtown Toronto. This year musical performances are being added to the large bazaar and big name roster of speakers of past events. Nada has a reason beyond trying not to meet eligible Muslim men – her mother is giving her enough pressure about that at home. No, she’s pretty sure she’s going to run into someone with whom she has a long Past. And it’s not all pretty.
When she was eleven, Nada met a young boy her own age and if we all remember how we looked during these tween years, we know that Nada had a lot of ammunition to use against Baz as she revelled in her position as Leader of the Girl Pack. Yeah, Nada made Baz’s life hell. But as we see later, she’s not the only one who turns to bullying others to alleviate the pain of being bullied herself by children in her public school. She knew it wasn’t right but the feeling of power it gave her was too sweet to ignore. But that’s not the end of their past encounters – as told in dual past and present timelines. At a Muslim teen camp, Nada sees Baz again but this time he’s a bit grown up, she feels terrible for what she did then, and she’s subjected to bullying from some Mean Girls now.
Fast forward to college and things finally change but just as Baz and Nada come to see they have feelings for each other, this clashes with events taking place in the Nada’s family which need her parent’s full attention. When they do finally meet Baz … they’re not impressed with this college dropout, musical artist, who roams the world when he’s not dutifully – but still resentfully – working in the small family business. Nada presses a decision on Baz that they’ll both come to regret. With six years of life between then and now, can Nada finally let go of past events that hurt her and will Baz ever accept her apologies for what she did?
I went ahead and mentioned all the painful things in Baz and Nada’s past because when we first met Baz in the present timeline, I thought, “Wow, what an asshole.” Later I thought, “Wow, how did he ever manage to treat Nada better than she deserved.” Yes, my feelings about Baz did a 180 pretty quickly. Their relationship is tricky to say the least. One thing that kept me believing in the promise of it was the fact that through most of the past sections, it’s very clear how Baz actually thought about Nada. How Nada feels about Baz yo-yos from one extreme to the other and, I’ll be frank, it took a long time for me to be even halfway convinced that she’s not going to hurt Baz again. I was ready to get stabby on behalf of poor Baz.
Where the book worked best for me was in the depiction of the Syed family. This was closely followed by how the immigrant community they are a part of is shown. Some of this is very positive and some of it shines a light on the struggles of the first generation to settle into life in a foreign country and cling to life as they knew it even as their Canadian born children try to move ahead and balance their lives between what their parents want and what they want. But don’t think that the parents are barely making do – most of them are shown to have achieved success and are trying to do their best – as they see “best” – for their children.
Nada and Baz both admit to being “Brown Children” (term used in the book) – dutiful outside yet also resentful, at times, inside at their parent’s demands. But at the same time, they’ve been raised to expect their elders to have strong opinions about their careers and their potential spouses and to buck the system too strongly can lead to lowering the family status in the community. Nada’s older brother and his wife divorced, leading her brother to suffer years of depression while Nada’s younger brother has a neurological condition that has led him to eventually need a wheelchair and to develop an in-your-face attitude to those in their community who look down on him. Nada despises the fact that some of the Muslims who have endured racism and bullying are content to view and treat her brother this way.
Then there is the Muslim representation. For most, their religion is front and center and always a part of their lives. I can see that something like the Muslim Conference would be a freeing experience where they can just be accepted and be themselves. Nada’s disastrous past business experience was based on trying to do something good for her community. The whole conference grew out of Baz’s parent’s business. There is an event in Nada’s teen past where her hijab is pulled off in public and it’s treated with care and concern for her. It’s mentioned how often Nada prays each day and how much the Muslim student groups meant for her as a place to go as well as how meaningful it was to her to visit the Aga Khan Museum.
One thing I think was done well is how the main characters all made mistakes. None of them was perfect. Lessons had to be learned and trust regained. Nada and Baz were young and impetuous when they made their worst mistakes. They’ve had six years to regret and wonder and live with the pain of their actions. The other couple in the book worry that they might be marrying too quickly in the face of still being unmarried at thirty. Nada’s brother put his parent’s dictates above his bride’s and lost her as a result. Nada tried my patience at times but in the end, I think she, along with several others in the book, did reflect and learn. B/B-