I Think Straight by Shamim SarifI Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif is a sometimes funny, sometimes serious romance with plenty of family drama to navigate on the way to a happy ending.

Tala has three failed engagements behind her. Her mother hopes that Tala has finally realized the truth—marrying for love is a myth. Tala isn’t so sure. Living in London, Tala distances herself somewhat from her Palestinian roots and questions everything. She is keenly aware of the politics of the world she lives in and the privileged place she holds in it as the daughter of a rich businessman.

Leyla doesn’t like to cause trouble. She lives in London with her parents and attends temple as any Indian Muslim is expected to. She works at her father’s insurance firm even though her passion is writing, and she dates a nice Indian boy who her parents approve of. Leyla wants to please her parents, even if it means sacrificing her own happiness.

When Tala and Leyla are introduced by Leyla’s boyfriend, Tala is quick to challenge Leyla. As the two get to know one another, they find an undeniable attraction growing between them that threatens to tear apart both of their families.

The Characters

I’ll confess that I came into this already a fan of the movie version and I was immediately drawn to Tala in both versions. She is engaged with the world she lives in and she is not shy to stand against her parents or cause a scandal. As the story progresses, a vulnerability emerges that adds depth to her character and just made me enjoy reading about her even more.

Leyla is quieter and I spent the first half of the book desperately wanting her to do something that was just for her rather than making decisions based on what would make her family happy. The story that emerges as she comes to terms with herself is that much more poignant because of these early decisions.

Both characters go on intense personal journeys. This novel is certainly a romance, but the personal growth is equally important. As their feelings develop, so too does the realization that they have choices to make. Return to their acceptable lives of marriage and children with appropriate men, or go against the wishes of their families.

The Writing Style

This novel has an entirely unusual style for a romance. Instead of limiting the point of view to one or both of the main characters the reader is taken on a journey that includes the parents, siblings, and even the housekeeper. These little glimpses into the other parts of the world add depth to the story as well as humor (the housekeeper in particular is hilarious), unfortunately it does detract slightly from the romance between Tala and Leyla. It took me a little to settle into this unusual style but it would have been a very different novel without those aspects involved. The book plays out in parallel to the film version which may explain the unconventional stylistic choice.

The Pros

Sarif has a fantastic grasp of imagery. So much of this story emerges within the details of the world she creates. It is not just what is said, but also what isn’t. The supporting characters in this novel are amazing. They are one of my favorite parts about the world, from Leyla’s sister Yasmin who just wants to cook everything, even non-Indian dishes, to Tala’s sisters, and both women’s fathers.

I read to be able to live in worlds that are not my own. As a white cisgender woman, finding some aspect of myself in books is very easy. Often the only aspect not reflected is my nationality (Australian). Sarif, truly brought me into a very different world and I’m glad I had the chance to experience it.

The Cons


The Conclusion

Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, this novel is a delightful read that pulls you into the lives of these two families and offers one hell of a ride. If you’ve seen the movie and didn’t enjoy it, I doubt you’ll enjoy the book version as they are nearly identical. If you enjoyed the movie, the book offers a lot of depth to the characters in terms of their thought processes that we can’t see in the film. My only misgiving about this book is that the style doesn’t allow for a deeper exploration of the relationship between Tala and Leyla, but this is an enjoyable read for anyone who loves a coming out story.

Excerpt from I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

“Stop interrogating the poor girl, Mama.”

Leyla stood up quickly, watching as Ali grasped Tala in a bear hug and when Tala turned to her, Leyla held out a hand, friendly but formal. Tala regarded the hand with an air of amusement before leaning to kiss the girl on both cheeks. Leyla smiled and reciprocated, not wanting to appear awkward, although she was. She had never learned how to decide when to offer a hand versus a kiss. Other people seemed to drift easily into the right method for the right person; there must be some intricate web of body language that Leyla had not grasped, or perhaps it was her innate reserve that held her back more easily than it urged her forward. Tala smiled, noting the indecision in Leyla’s movement.

“Sorry to break your British reserve,” Tala said. “But we always kiss in the Middle East.” She paused and leaned forward conspiratorially. “Usually just before we slit your throat…”

Leyla smiled and took in the young woman before her. Tala wore a soft shirt, open at the throat to reveal a thin, plain gold chain. Her nails were short and unpolished, her shoes immaculate, but flat and practical. Her hair was curly and untamed, and it lent her an air of slight madness, as though the thoughts in her head were springing directly out through her scalp. Leyla became aware that her face was advertising her surprise because Tala was watching her, amused.

“You’re not what I expected.” Leyla spoke the most coherent sentence floating in her head and then closed her eyes slightly against her own forthrightness.

“That’s because Ali paints me as a rich, spoilt princess,” Tala replied dryly.

“Isn’t it true?” he asked her with gentle sarcasm.

“I’m not a princess,” she replied with a smile.

“Just rich and spoilt,” her father noted, filling the gap with the punchline that Tala had deliberately left open for him.

She smiled and sat on the floor, waving away offers of a seat. Her gaze moved back to Leyla.

“And are you what my mother expected? I heard her giving you the third degree, even from the hallway.”

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