Amal Awad’s debut novel, Courting Samira, centers on a Jane Austen-style love-triangle set in a contemporary Arab-Australian community where business-like arranged marriages are still the norm. I purchased this book on a whim because it was a semi-finalist in the General Fiction category for Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award. It caught my eye immediately, as I share my first name with the author and one of my daughters shares her first name with the protagonist. I thought those reasons were as good as any to purchase the book.
I enjoyed the novel, after I had gotten used to the author’s informal writing style that uses periods (and thus creates sentence fragments) where I am more accustomed to seeing commas, semi-colons, or em dashes (several authors I’ve read recently seem to do this). The story is a typical chick-lit plot in many ways: a girl in her late twenties meets a boy, etc., but the twist is that this girl, Samira, meets boy after boy after boy (“doorknockers”) as they visit her home as potential suitors in a culture that views marriage as a relationship between two families, rather than solely between the individuals who, if the match is successful, will spend the rest of their lives together. The novel thus allows readers to peek into a less strict version of arranged marriage, where the parents oversee the process with input from their children.
After dozens of unsuccessful “doorknock appeals,” Samira eventually meets a boy on her own. The boy she meets fits into her Arab-Australian world, and in time, also comes “for a visit.” The problem is that Samira is torn between this suitor and her childhood friend, a dependable but more traditional man who has kept his feelings for her private. The author references Jane Austen a few times throughout the novel, and indeed, to some degree, the story invokes parallels to some of Jane Austen’s famous triangles, including Emma Woodhouse/Frank Churchill/Mr. Knightly, and to a lesser extent, Marianne Dashwood/Willoughby/Colonel Brandon and Elizabeth Bennet/Wickham/Mr. Darcy (though some would probably argue that this third example is really a linear courtship without Wickham as a real contender).
The problem with Courting Samira, however, is that the protagonist here seems to reject the suitor most like Knightley, Brandon, and Darcy, who are the brooding, dependable men whose virtues eventually shine through and who win the hearts of Jane Austen’s protagonists. As a result, I finished the book feeling unsatisfied, feeling like my friend Samira had made the wrong choice. I’m sure others would disagree with me. Perhaps my matchmaking abilities are as poor as Emma Woodhouse’s.
Overall, I appreciated Courting Samira for its nuanced look at what it means to be a modern Muslim woman in the Western world, a polite rebuke to the stereotypical depiction of Muslims that we often see in the media. Samira is Muslim, educated, employed, and totally and utterly normal in the best ways. As a woman who also grew up in a Muslim family in a different western country, Courting Samira rings true to me, and for this reason I recommend it.