Title: Sofia Khan is Not Obliged
Author: Ayisha Malik
Genre: Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Romance
Rating: ★★★★☆ | 3.5 stars
warnings for: islamaphobia (in text), fatphobia (metatextual)
After Sofia Khan breaks up with her fiancee, she swears off dating. It’s too bad, then, that her colleagues at the publishing house where she works overhear her complaining about how hard it is to date as a Muslim, especially as a hijabi, in London, and think that writing a book about Muslim dating would be a good idea. Told in the form of journal entries, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged follows Sofia as she tries to figure out the finer points of online dating, of marriage, and of what she wants out of her life as she edges into her thirties.
Some of the comp titles for this novel have been Bridget Jones and Pride and Prejudice (if the former is a retelling of the latter, can they both be used as comp titles for a third book?) and I can definitely see elements of both of those in this. Sofia is a spunky protagonist with a bigger mouth than is probably good for her and more heart than she knows what to do with. Outside of that, though, Sofia is a character of her own.
I did feel like the novel could have been condensed by a good 50-80 pages, but this may simply be because I’m used to the tight pacing of YA novels. Still, it’s not something that I object to overmuch, since I enjoyed reading Sofia’s voice so much that even if the novel had gone on for two, three hundred pages longer than it did, I likely would have stuck around, but only if that last portion was more tightly plotted. While the first 85% of the novel felt well-paced and made sense as a logical progression, the last 15% of the novel felt incredibly abrupt, and, to some extent, unbelievable. I don’t ask for realism out of the novels I read, but I do generally ask for them to make internal sense, and the last portion of the novel did not feel that way. It was rushed and it could have been much cleaner, not in a ‘everything was resolved’ way, but at least in a ‘everything is purposeful’ way.
The other thing that really concerned me throughout this novel––and was in fact the thing that knocked the novel down from a 4.5 to a 3.5 is the constant fatphobia and fatshaming. It’s one thing for the protagonist of a novel to be self-conscious about her own weight––one of the prices we seem to be consistently paying to live as women in the world is to feel bad about taking up space––but to pass judgement on other people, particularly when played for laughs.
“Jesus, how heavy is that person’s hand luggage?” said Conall, under his breath.
“How heavy is that person?” I replied, not so quietly.
Some of the ways Sofia related to Pakistan was also quite uncomfortable to read, but to be fair,she’s not atypical in this way among many of the first generation Asians I know. Some of this is offset by the fact that Malik declines to translate much of the Urdu used in the novel––something that’s happening more and more nowadays, but it never fails to make me happy. We should never, I think, try and explain ourselves, to put ourselves on display, to exhibit ourselves like we belong in museums more than in life.
Overall, though, this was still an incredibly enjoyable read. Sofia was a refreshing (such a cliche) voice that isn’t often featured in mainstream contemporary fiction, particularly not in women’s fiction or romance. She is a young professional, a Muslim, a hijabi whose parents think that her hijab are hindering her chances of finding a husband, a feminist who is intensely religious, and who is never narratively shamed for being so. Her relationship with her parents was convincingly sketched and nuanced––one never once feels, for instance, that despite her parents’ pressure for her to get married, they do not love her. Rather, their love of her is what motivates them to want to see her comfortably settled with a good man.
The story was in turns affecting, humorous, and romantic. The love interest was dreamy (though I wish that certain life-changing decisions made towards the end of the book seemed more like they were done for their own merit rather than a desire to romantically pursue our erstwhile protagonist), and okay, it was a forgone conclusion the second he was introduced, but really it didn’t make their story any less sweet. And hey. I’m not biased just cos I think tattoos are hot. Promise.