I didn’t know what to expect when I first picked up Jennifer Zobair’s debut novel, Painted Hands.
Chicklit isn’t really my thing — and it was sold to me as a “Muslim chicklit” — even though highly appraising endorsements found on the back cover call this novel, “a positive portrait of Muslim women” and an “important addition to the canon of ethnic fiction.”
I’ve never seen Sex In the City; when it comes to fiction, I’m more interested in sci-fi/fantasy, and I just wasn’t sure how much I could relate to a pair of high-flying, Prada-wearing, Boston-raised, and politically- and legally-minded “modern” Muslim characters.
Surprise! I loved it.
Within the first few pages, I was gasping in shock and gleefully gossiping with my sister-in-law over each experience, event, plot twist, and wonderfully terrible scandal as the book unfolded. As if these characters were like our own friends — and they probably could be. Zobair has not only created a collection of memorable characters, but she has also effortlessly represented almost every Muslim American community and popular media personality. It’s as if her novel presents a snapshot, a broad overview of the American Muslim community, from Muslim feminists, activists, and converts, to non-practicing Muslims, avid mosque-goers, and unruly mosque Uncles. She even name-drops a few modern famous Muslims to make the book more relatable to a present-day context.
The plot, about 30-something Muslim women trying to negotiate faith, love, and growing up in secular America while firmly routed in South Asian culture, focuses on the two main characters: Amra Abbas, a work-obsessed lawyer aiming for corporate partnership, and Zainab Mir, a fierce A-type personality with a knack for spinning strategic communications for a Republican political campaign runner. Their relationship with each other, their families and their faith are influenced by a cast of eclectic supporting characters: Mateen, Amra’s love interest and husband, struggles to balance his love for Amra with his own expectations of how a “good” Muslim wife should act; Chase Holland, a neo-con radio host and bigot who struggles after falling in love with Zainab; and Hayden Palmer, a party-girl headline stereotype who converts to Islam to spite the Muslim man who uses her for sex.