Title: The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali
Author: Sabina Khan
Released: January 29th 2019
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA+
Goodreads Rating: 4.28 (of 58 ratings)
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Seventeen-year-old Rukhsana Ali tries her hardest to live up to her conservative Muslim parents’ expectations, but lately she’s finding that harder and harder to do. She rolls her eyes instead of screaming when they blatantly favor her brother and she dresses conservatively at home, saving her crop tops and makeup for parties her parents don’t know about. Luckily, only a few more months stand between her carefully monitored life in Seattle and her new life at Caltech, where she can pursue her dream of becoming an engineer.
But when her parents catch her kissing her girlfriend Ariana, all of Rukhsana’s plans fall apart. Her parents are devastated; being gay may as well be a death sentence in the Bengali community. They immediately whisk Rukhsana off to Bangladesh, where she is thrown headfirst into a world of arranged marriages and tradition. Only through reading her grandmother’s old diary is Rukhsana able to gain some much needed perspective.
Rukhsana realizes she must find the courage to fight for her love, but can she do so without losing everyone and everything in her life?
Disclaimer: I received this book at Yallfest – thank you to the publishers for handing them out! I am grateful for the opportunity to review an ARC for my readers, but this will not influence my final rating. All opinions expressed in this review are my own and based solely on the book.
According to the summary on the book, I was supposed to get an emotional read that would have heart and humor – however, I’m not laughing.
Before we talk about anything, I need to give the trigger/content warnings because I definitely didn’t see any of them coming. And they are HEAVY trigger warnings, and they can be incredibly triggering so I want to put them out there.
Warning for: extreme homophobia, abuse, rape, molestation of a minor, graphic murder, conversion therapy, hate crime/murder of a LGBTQIA+ character, drugging against will, and…I think this is it, but honestly, there could have been more. There was a lot.
When I first picked this book up, I knew I was getting into an emotional read. We are introduced to Rukhsana who is a Bengali American teen who is living with her conservative parents, her loving brother, and a major secret: she’s gay and has a wonderful girlfriend, Ariana. Once she gets into her dream school of Caltech, she is counting down the days when she can live a life with Ariana out in sunny California, and away from the watchful and gossiping eyes of her close knit community. However, once her secret is out, she is promptly whisked back to Bangladesh as she fights to be who she truly is and her love.
Again, I knew it was going to be an emotional from the beginning, but I saw the heart and humor in the summary so I was preparing myself for some light in the dark tunnel. The story starts off a bit slow with Rukhsana introducing us to her world. The romance was cute, Rukhsana was a great lead, I really liked Rukhsana’s brother and their dynamic, and she had a good friend group – a little not understanding but good. It definitely had a good contemporary vibe, but it was a bit slower paced. I could definitely feel the tension rising, and Khan definitely set it up nicely to give a good introduction to Rukhsana and the important characters before diving into the big moments.
I think my biggest issues was the amount of issues that Rukhsana faces in the short amount of this novel. This novel is barely over 300 pages, but we go through a large amount of issues that most of the time didn’t have time to be properly addressed. Each one went through so quickly that even though I was shaken from the event, we were whisked through right to the next one without a proper amount of time to let it settle or even see Rukhsana’s perspective of it. At one point, I was physically ill over an event, and it immediately seemed to get glazed over to something else that seemed so inconsequential.
I’m going to include spoilers for the rest of this review, because I have a lot of things to discuss and there isn’t a way to talk about them without describing the events that transpired. As I said: SPOILERS.
Once Rukhsana’s family finds out that she is a lesbian, they say that they need to go back to Bangladesh to see Rukhsana’s ailing grandmother, Nani. They say they will be there for 2 weeks, and then they will be back. I was having some minor issues with this book already, but at this point, I was still invested.
They go to Bangladesh, Rukhsana finds that her grandma is having some struggles but isn’t in dire straits, and she has a great time with her cousin. Everything seems to be going okay. However, Rukhsana is starting to see there might be some issues since men are starting to be pushed her way and arranged marriages are starting to bubble up to the surface. This was very clear, so she wasn’t doing the whole clueless YA trope thankfully. When she confronts her parents, she discovers that they will not be going back to the US until she agrees to be engaged to a man. She immediately tells them that she will never be married to man, and her father instantly falls to the floor.
At first, it seemed like it was a heart attack, although later it was found to be a panic attack? Although I was really confused? When I’ve had panic episodes, I’ve never just dropped to the floor without showing obvious signs? Anyway, Rukhsana is the one that is blamed for her father’s almost death/health concerns. Lots of triggering items were said here, and it was horrible to read.
The next few chapters are kind of a haze for me. Rukhsana starts making a plan to escape since she is being forced to stay behind. She steals her passport, and starts playing the dutiful daughter. She goes out with the men that her parents push, she hangs out with her cousin, and reconnects with her friends and Ariana. It seemed like we were biding time until the next big thing happened.
However, a day or two before Rukhsana is able to escape, she is found out by her mother. Her mother immediately locks her in her room, and she is not allowed out. She goes on a hunger strikes of sorts, until, like, two days in, her cousin brings her some tea. Rukhsana drinks it, and immediately discovers something is off. It is found out that her tea was drugged, and when she wakes up, there is a jinn catcher, which is basically conversion therapy. According to the mom and the jinn catcher, the reason Rukhsana is a lesbian is because there is a jinn inside her, and they need to get it out.
Of course, I was absolutely horrified. It was so abrupt, and I immediately felt sickened. Obviously, I know this happens, but HEART and HUMOR were in the summary so I didn’t realize we were getting this dark?? Like, this goes way beyond “oops my parents don’t know and take it badly!!” This is highly disturbing and traumatic and against the law to drug someone. I had to take a break, and I went to Sha about it. After some deep thinking, I decided to go back into it, since I was pretty far into it, and I thought, perhaps this will be the darkest we will get?
After this, I believe Rukhsana immediately goes to her grandmother and tells her the truth about her. Nani is rightly disgusted, and provides to be a source of comfort. I didn’t mention, but there has been some great voices of support in this including Rukhsana’s cousin as well as some friends back home. Nani then gives Rukhsana her diary to read in times of struggle.
After this…well, the whole jinn catcher is never brought back up??? The whole thing seems to move on very quickly, and I was a bit shocked that we didn’t discuss further. This is a huge thing. It’s a huge moment. A huge horrific moment. And I never really got to see what Rukhsana felt about it? I never got to dive into the depth of it. Which was crazy to me because why why why was this not discussed further?????
Rukhsana meets up again with a potential suitor who we find out also happens to be gay. I liked this character a lot, but I did feel like we skimmed the surface with him since we only met him in short increments of time. They decided to make a plan where they will run away with each other to get back to the US on the night of their engagement party. Next few chapters include randomness and waiting for the big day.
When it comes around, Rukhsana manages to escape, and she gets to the airport. Her fiance never shows, but she manages to get on the airplane and leave. After a little bit, she finally picks up her phone and finds out that her finance was brutally murdered because he was gay.
I have to say this was definitely a very hard scene to read. This was the moment that I mentioned above where I felt physically sick was this moment in the book. Earlier in the book, it was mentioned that some guys at work with this fiance were aggressive toward LGBTQIA+ people, but I have to say that I didn’t fully expect this. It was horrible and heartbreaking and the mentions of it did get graphic which made me feel sick to my stomach. I just…I have no words. No words to describe it all.
It was talked about for a bit, but the next day in the book, Rukhsana calls up one of her friends and Jen is like, “How have you been” and Rukhsana is like, “Well, I’ve been better. Can you drive me to school to deal with this schooling issue so I can get into Caltech??” and then we go through all of this and like WHERE IS THE CARE AND DEPTH AND CONVERSATION ABOUT WHAT JUST HAPPENED? SOMEONE WAS MURDERED. SOMEONE she knew and cared for and because he was gay. We immediately went onto the next plot point, and this was something that was incredibly traumatizing that needed to be dealt with..
A lot of other things are happening, and then Rukhsana’s parents come back. Rukhsana is rightly angry and hurt because of the things they did. However, Rukhsana keeps getting pushed to talk to them because the death has “affected” them. It has supposedly changed their minds and how they perceive the world. It goes on for a few pages/short chapters until Rukhsana finally agrees to sit down and have a conversation with her mom. They talk for a bit, and Rukhsana makes some points, Mom apologizes, and then they…are good to go? Rukhsana says that her mom has a lot to make up for, but they cry and hug and…literally they start to talk about schools in the next breath and how she’s good with Caltech and everything is great.
This. Was. Crazy. To. Me. Obviously more went into this, but the rest of the book is the heart and happy and humor that was mentioned. However, HOW. HOWWWWWWw. This book dealt with two incredibly heinous things, and then, like, everything is happy and pleasing and peachy??? I literally went through the rest of the book in a daze. Rukhsana’s family were so invested in finding Rukhsana a good Bengali girl and finding out more, and there was a moment I snorted out loud especially with her Aunty.
Howeverrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. This is the book where there was conversion therapy??? And locking into the room??? And forcing her into an unhappy marriage?? It was an abrupt 180, because NOTHING seemed like it was going to come to a happy resolution??? It just blew my mind. Of course, happy resolution are good, but Rukhsana’s forgiveness seemed to invalidate all of the terrible things that happened to her because of her family’s actions. They were TERRIBLE things, things against the LAW, and everything was mostly good? I just…I don’t know how to process it.
And then there is the diary. If all of these things weren’t incredibly triggering enough, Rukshana reads her Nani’s diary. It includes stories of her Nani as she enters into her marriage with Rukshana’s grandfather. It includes stories of Nani being raped by her husband, abuse from the husband and mother-in-law, the molestation of her daughter (Rukhsana’s mother), and the fact that Nani pretty much orchestrated the husband’s murder. Just…I just…they were just casual mentions and droppings of these events which are heinous, vile things and we just get a few sentences and just…? I have no words?
I’m honestly not sure what to do with this book. This book does show that there is those that support LGBTQIA+ in the Bengali community, and it’s representative of inclusion. There are many friends and Nani who accept Rukhsana for who she is and doesn’t try to change her. However, I felt like a lot of these characters didn’t stand out as much as those that were hateful.
And there was just SO much. So many terrible things, and we only had moments to deal with them. Only a few moments to discuss and get Rukhsana’s perspective into the next thing. And there was so many triggering moments and items, and I just…I don’t understand. I don’t understand where this was all supposed to go. I feel like any good that was given with those that were supported was drowned out by the terrible and traumatizing items that happened in the book. It’s certainly all I can remember.
The characters really weren’t that memorable, and even though I did like Rukhsana’s voice, with all the rushing, I felt like I lost depth with her. Other side characters were nice but not great – nothing that just immediately was like I LOVE. My favorite character was probably Nani and Rukhsana’s cousin. The ending moments would have been cute and fun had not all of the other things happened. I liked her and Ariana’s romance a lot in the beginning, but Ariana was a super messy character for me. The culture was infused nicely, and the diversity was amazing to see. And I think I’ve made my points clear on what I thought about the pacing.
This review is already incredibly long, and I’m not sure that any of it makes sense. I’m just…I’m so lost with this book, but this book was a lot, and I wish we had more depth. I just…I’m not sure.
Did you make it to the end of this incredibly long review? What was the last book that got you this fiery? Let’s discuss!