Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Book Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid
published 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

About the Book:
At a café table in Lahore, a bearded Pakistani man converses with an uneasy American stranger. As dusk deepens to night, he begins the tale that has brought them to this fateful meeting . . .

Changez is living an immigrant’s dream of America. At the top of his class at Princeton, he is snapped up by the elite "valuation" firm of Underwood Samson. He thrives on the energy of New York, and his infatuation with elegant, beautiful Erica promises entry into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore.

But in the wake of September 11, Changez finds his position in his adopted city suddenly overturned, and his budding relationship with Erica eclipsed by the reawakened ghosts of her past. And Changez’s own identity is in seismic shift as well, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power, and maybe even love.
My Take:
When my mother-in-law handed me this slim volume and said, "This is a story you have to read," I didn't know what to expect. She's given me several books over the years with this same urgent recommendation, and not all of them have been enjoyable reads. Beside the fact that this didn't sound like light summer fare. But after several disappointing YA reads in a row, I decided to broaden my end-of-summer horizons and let this one jump to the top of the TBR pile.

On the cover it tells you it's a NYT bestseller, and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The cover blurb from the Washington Post review that graced my edition reads, "Extreme times call for extreme reactions, extreme writing." (The cover did not encourage me to want this in my beach bag.)
A mere 184 pages later,  I'm glad that I read this book, with its beautifully descriptive passages and extraordinary writing. I found myself at times savoring Mr. Hamid's words as if they were themselves some of the exotic fare he was describing at their cafe table in Lahore.
As the world news tells us daily about continuing unrest and bloody battles going on right now in Egypt and Syria, this post-9/11 tale remains relevant in helping to understand the dichotomy of thought which exists in the younger generations not only in Pakistan but in other countries of that region. 
The Reluctant Fundamentalist shows us the volatile and precarious relationship between the U.S. and the Middle Eastern region through the eyes of one young Pakistani man. Changez is our first person narrator, and he is telling his story from his point of view to this unidentified man he meets in a cafe - seemingly at random, but as the story progresses we find things aren't always as they appear on the surface.
By following this one young man's trajectory from Pakistan to Princeton to the upper echelons of Manhattan's business and social life, through the tragedy of 9/11 and the escalating tensions between India and Pakistan that followed in its wake, and then back again to Pakistan, the author leads the reader to understand that without empathy on both sides of the equation, relations between the West and the East will continue their downward spiral into chaos.

The ending is left intentionally oblique, and apparently my mother-in-law and sister-in-law have already argued over what happens to the narrator after the last page. Suffice it to say that the writing is beautiful and compelling and thought-provoking, and I totally recommend this slim volume to anyone who is up for an intellectually stimulating summer read. (My middle child has already asked to borrow this copy now that I've finished.)

And, as an author-ly aside, I have to give a shout-out to this particularly apt passage, in which Erica, Changez's fellow-Princeton grad and love interest, describes how she perceives her own novel writing. If you're an author, or have ever tried to write a story, this should strike a chord.
In this scene, Erica has just told Changez that her manuscript is complete and she's ready to send it off to an agent.

"Are you nervous?" I asked her. "I'm more unsettled than nervous," she said. "It's like I'm an oyster. I've had this sharp speck inside me for a long time, and I've been trying to make it more comfortable, so slowly I've turned it into a pearl. But now it's finally being taken out, and just as it's going I'm realizing there's a gap being left behind, you know, a dent in my belly where it used to sit. And so I kind of want to hold on to it a for a little longer."



  1. I read this some years ago and was drawn in, wanting to know more. I found the ambiguous ending rather frustrating - I suppose I wanted a happy resolution.

    1. I think that's why the ending is intentionally ambiguous. There are no easy answers. This way you are left thinking about it all, and you want to talk with someone else about it to see whether they came to the same conclusions...

  2. I don't have much to say other than, I will now be adding this to my TBR list. I'd heard the title but not much else. Sounds like a good, quick, intense read. Just what I need after Vanity Fair.

  3. Since the end of summer is approaching, perhaps I'll do aware with my "beach" reads and add this to my TBR list. Nice review.


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