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THE GROOM TO HAVE BEEN by Saher Alam. Spiegel and Grau, a division of Random House, Inc.: New York. July 2008. $14.00. 352 pages.

At first glance, the text on the back of Saher Alam’s outstanding debut novel, The Groom to Have Been, is curious: “A Love Story Inspired by The Age of Innocence,” the classic American novel by Edith Wharton. What could a modern novel about immigrant Muslims from Lucknow, India, possibly have in common with Edith Wharton’s book about money-and-class-conscious high society in turn-of-the-century New York? Simple: the inherent loyalty to traditional mores by those who also question their validity within their respective societies.

Nasr Siddiqui, a Canadian Muslim, is the son of immigrants, one who must straddle two cultures. But he also leads two adult personal lives: in New York City, where he lives and works, he has a full and free life; when visiting family in Montreal, he is the respectful, attentive, only son of his widowed mother. Although Nasr is not eager to have an arranged marriage, he gives his mother the green light to appease her. This gives Nasr’s closest childhood friend, Jameela, an opening to debate him about traditions and customs in a modern world. Eventually, Nasr agrees to marry Farah Ansari, a girl from a conservative family living in a Montreal suburb. One month after the engagement, 9/11 occurs, changing the lives of all involved.

The novel’s basic design is inspired by Wharton’s Pulitzer-winner, but Alam wisely chose not to parrot the model. Instead, she revives the spirit of the classic to underscore analogous aspects of Wharton’s society and that of Groom’s characters. The result is a powerful and thoughtful story that does not require knowledge of Wharton’s work, and it is highly enjoyable on its own merits. Nasr’s journey is the modern equivalent of The Age of Innocence’s Newland Archer’s—by virtue of the same need for correctness and of similar insecurities, contradictions, curiosities, and realizations—but Nasr and Newland are two different characters.

In an email interview, Alam gave a comprehensive list of reasons why The Age of Innocence inspired her: “… the (perhaps antiquated) emphasis in the societies [Wharton] portrays on marriage as a goal, on marrying well, on how the person whom you marry defines or re-defines your social status; parents with elaborate expectations trying to pass down [and thereby preserve] an inflated sense of who their people are or were; the irony of tribal, primitive clannishness ruling the lives and fates of these outwardly sophisticated people; and Wharton’s dedication to framing and teasing out the dangers to the individual of making the safe choice, the approved choice, and the dangers to a society of prizing and overvaluing innocence in its women, in itself, and its actions—innocence being dangerously close to ignorance. Her characters and societies seemed to correspond strongly to the people and communities I know.”

Alam, herself, is an immigrant from Lucknow, so it is logical that she would have a direct connection to and an intimate knowledge of the characters she has so fluently created. However, her own life does not parallel her characters’ in one significant aspect. “In terms of my own experience,” she says, “I was at times faced with choices similar to Nasr’s, but his path is a path I didn’t take. I didn’t quite share his patience and confidence in the arranged marriage system, largely because my parents have a marriage that I admire, I did think I would also get an arranged marriage. But I lucked out: I met my husband on my own, and although he may not be Indian or Muslim, his sensibilities overlap with mine and my parents’ and we all feel pretty well arranged (by fate!).”

Interestingly, Alam’s own non-traditional marriage reflects the familial harmony that should be the consequence of careful marriage arranging. In her novel, however, Alam carefully fuels the blossoming dissimilarities between the Siddiqui and Ansari families, which sets Nasr up as an outsider. Miles away from the preparations, Nasr is helpless as Farah’s parents bully his mother and uncle into getting what they want for the wedding. It is his younger sister, not he, who cleverly intervenes as the voice of reason between the families. In addition, Nasr and Farah’s courting is accomplished primarily through frequent New York-to-Montreal phone calls, but when he is in Montreal, she is surrounded by relatives as if they are the walls of Farah’s personal zenana.

The separation of the couple is exacerbated by “the terrible thing”—9/11—but the events pull Nasr in other directions as well. Alam skillfully exposes Nasr’s growing post-9/11 confusion, not just as a Canadian Muslim but a non-Arab Muslim in a frightened and suspicious New York: “… Nasr would accidentally drift into lectures, and sometimes he would say things he wasn’t sure about, with more conviction than he actually felt … sometimes the attention made Nasr feel as though his life in New York over the past few years had been taking place in a drawer that had now been pulled open and its contents rummaged for clues to a mystery.” It is then that Nasr also begins to have serious doubts about his impending marriage and surprising feelings for Jameela.

One of the important elements of Wharton’s work is the use of place. Alam set her story in New York City, as did Wharton; however, Alam also astutely made Canada the home base for the major characters. When asked why she chose Montreal over another American city, Alam was clear in her twofold intent: “Nasr’s father married a woman he hardly knew and brought her to a place he hardly knew to make a life together. In getting an arranged marriage to Farah, Nasr makes a similar gesture: he takes his bride to a new place—New York.”

“While the difference between Canada and the U.S. is not nearly as large as the difference between India and North America,” she says, “after September 11, a difference did re-assert itself. Canadians in perfect sympathycould say, ‘They attacked them.’ (Meaning the terrorists attacked the Americans.) And that one layer of remove seemed, at least to me, to correspond psychically to the immigrant experience—of being both among and outside. The story needed to be set in Canada to make Nasr more pointedly think about and be troubled by the responsibility of taking a veritable stranger to another place, a place he himself feels uncertain about, and of trying to make her comfortable and happy there.”

The Groom to Have Been is an intimate and intelligently told love story that is about maturity rather than learned affection in a specific society. Alam’s keen eye provides dramatic literary snapshots of characters who cling to and question their customs as they attempt to redefine their places in society. Her handling of delicate matters such as September 11 and Nasr’s inner turmoil makes her characters resonate in the whispers, laughs, and tears usually reserved for sharing with only the closest of friends. What’s appealing is that somewhere in the early part of the book, there is the innocent realization that the characters are becoming the reader’s closest friends, for they are honest, comfortable, compassionate, and all too human.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in beautiful Central North Carolina where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a long-time Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association....