Book Review: “The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali” by Sabina Khan

Things are going really well for Rukhsana – graduation is coming up, she just got a full scholarship to Caltech, and she’s totally in love with her beautiful girlfriend, Ariana. The only hiccup is that she hasn’t told her parents she’s gay, and even though she wants to believe her parents would react differently than other closed-minded Bangladeshi families she’s known, Rukhsana can’t be sure. But Ariana is tired of being kept a secret, and before Rukhsana has a chance to figure out the right way to tell her parents the truth, her mother walks in on the two girls kissing. Not only does Rukhsana not recognize the two people her parents turn into when they find out her secret, she also doesn’t know how she’s going to get out of the arranged marriage they now seem intent on forcing her into.

In a time when YA is full of coming out narratives of all kinds, The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali is a valuable intersectional exploration of the experience. Throughout the novel, Rukhsana doesn’t just deal with her parents’ extreme reaction to her sexual identity, she also has to cope with white friends who just don’t “get” what the big deal is. They care about Rukhsana but are always suggesting that she’s exaggerating how serious things are. And when Rukhsana does manage to convey some semblance of what she’s going through to them, they can’t understand why she doesn’t just give up on her culture and family entirely.

Author Sabina Khan offers readers a complex exploration of these issues, one enhanced by the fact that the story doesn’t end abruptly with the resolution of whether or not Rukhsana will be forced into marriage – it dwells on how her relationship with her parents has transformed and offers some perspective on how they can rebuild trust together.

Beyond that, it’s also an absorbing and engaging read. Rukhsana is a narrator to root for, and there are enough plot twists and snares to entice lovers of juicy drama as well as heartfelt explorations of identity. The book can be brutal at times – Khan doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsher realities of intolerance both in the US and abroad – but she guides the reader through it all with a steady hand, never letting us lose sight of hope.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, Scholastic, for review.