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More Than Just a Pretty Face surprised me as much as Danyal Jilani, the main character in this young adult romantic comedy, surprised his family, friends, and peers. The book, like Danyal, is more than just a pretty face. What appeared to be at first glance and first chapter a lighthearted story of a boy coming of age (who just happens to be Muslim), gradually revealed itself to be an incisive commentary on class, politics, religion, and traditional gender roles.
Danyal Jilani is not smart, but he doesn’t want to be. He wants to be a chef and marry his best friend’s twin sister, the beautiful Kaval. But, to do that, he must change who he is and what he wants. He enlists the help of Bisma, the whip-smart microbiology major with nonexistent marriage prospects.
While Danyal matured and proved to be more than what everyone saw on the surface, he remained Danyal. He was still the same funny, charming, and just a little bit frivolous young man we met in chapter 1. The commentary Danyal gave was in his voice, not that of an activist or Islamic prophet. He didn’t suddenly drop his chef knives and pick up the Quran and a soapbox. Danyal is more than a pretty face, but he still had that face. He joked; he floundered; he still didn’t fully know what to think or what was going on, even as he realized what was right. This consistency was so important. I often see authors forget their characters in favor of the message. Not here.
I noticed the few negative reviews of this book came from Muslims disappointed with the representation of Islam in this book. Specifically, Danyal’s blithe approach to describing parts of Islam that were relevant to the plot, such as arranged marriage, virginity, modesty, and prayer. I am a practicing Catholic. I have experienced firsthand the frustration that comes from the perceived trivialization of faith, but to expect Danyal to explain Islam with anything more than a broad brush and a carefree attitude is demanding too much of him. The author remained true to Danyal. Have faith that the readers who want to learn more will do the heavy lifting.
Overall, a great young adult novel for fans of slow-burn, mostly chaste young-adult romances.