Author: Jennifer Zobair
Genre: general and literary fiction
Pages: 336 (hardcover edition)
Published: June 11 2013
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Muslim bad girl Zainab Mir has just landed a job working for a post-feminist, Republican Senate candidate. Her best friend Amra Abbas is about to make partner at a top Boston law firm. Together they’ve thwarted proposal-slinging aunties, cultural expectations, and the occasional bigot to succeed in their careers. What they didn’t count on? Unlikely men and geopolitical firestorms.
When a handsome childhood friend reappears, Amra makes choices that Zainab considers so 1950s—choices that involve the perfect Banarasi silk dress and a four-bedroom house in the suburbs. After hiding her long work hours during their courtship, Amra struggles to balance her demanding job and her unexpectedly traditional new husband.
Zainab has her own problems. She generates controversy in the Muslim community with a suggestive magazine spread and friendship with a gay reporter. Her rising profile also inflames neocons like Chase Holland, the talk radio host who attacks her religion publicly but privately falls for her hard. When the political fallout from a terrorist attempt jeopardizes Zainab's job and protests surrounding a woman-led Muslim prayer service lead to violence, Amra and Zainab must decide what they’re willing to risk for their principles, their friendship, and love.
The Namesake meets Sex and the City in this engaging and provocative debut novel about friendship and the love lives of American Muslim women.
As a white, atheist, Irish-American feminist, I am having a hard time analyzing this book through all of my inherent biases. I'm certainly going to try, but what do I do know about Painted Hands is that it is exceedingly well-written, gripping, and thoughtful. Showcasing the lives of two Muslim women - one of Pakistani descent and one of Indian - Painted Hands is a thought-provoking and timely look into a culture and religion outside of my wheelhouse. As main characters Zainab and Amra struggle to reconcile their modern day life with their religion, or with the traditions of their culture, Painted Hands takes care to fully illustrate these fascinating and complex women.
This view into a lifestyle I know so little about was fascinating, and made for a rich read. While I couldn't and still can't speak to the validity of all that occurs in Painted Hands, a quick chat with the lovely and smart Nafiza (of Bibliophilic Monologues) helped me to analyze this novel. Zobair, a Muslim convert herself, does portray some out-of-date attitudes, but as Painted Hands is about older generations of American Muslims (the main characters are nearly thirty, which puts their parents in 50s/60s, I would assume) and is not indicative of the majority of current Muslim opinion.
That said, this book touches on many issues and themes - religion, feminism, family - and it does so very well. It's an immensely readable novel about modern women who want to have it all, and their struggle to navigate the morass of a different culture and tradition in Christian America. Amra and Zainab are two very different women who happen to be friends and who happen to have been raised in the same religion. They experience a wide array of experience in Boston - one is more traditional, but still determined to make it at her job, and the other is less religious and less traditional in how she lives her life. The common ground between them is more than just a shared faith - they genuinely love one another, through all their ups and downs and it shows.
Zobair takes care and largely succeeds at showing Islam to be a nuanced, rich religion; one that is an integral and important part of each of her character's lives, even the more secular Zainab. It doesn't define who anyone is (except for maybe the Caucasian convert Hayden later in the book), but their faith is the basis for a lot of the plot and the cultural misunderstandings and ignorance that rise up through the course of their lives in modern Boston. Personal choices versus cultural traditions have an impact on both Amra and Zainab -- one in her married life, and the other in her political job. Through even the most outlandish events, Zobair keeps her story and her characters grounded in real life.
This was a fascinating read, and it made me really think about the way Americans see and talk about fellow Americans who happen to be Muslim. There is a debate which takes place in the novel that covers immigration and registering and Zobair absolutely captures the xenophobic attitudes endemic to so many Americans after 9/11. It's a sad fact that I know people who would support Muslim government registration, and reading this has made thankful for books that try to facilitate a new viewpoint. For a book that's pegged as half Sex and the City, I found Painted Hands to be a thought-provoking and impressive novel.