Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: Painted Hands by Jennifer Zobair

What do you know of Islam? Specifically, what do you know about young Muslim women in the United States? Do you picture them only as conservative women covered by burkas or do you see them as modern and varied as young women of other faiths? Mostly the media chooses to show us examples of only the most extreme and fanatical or the most conservative Muslims in this country so there's little to no frame of reference for non-Muslims when trying to find commonalities between themselves and the Muslim community. Jennifer Zobair's new novel, Painted Hands, not only presents moderate and balanced insights into the American Muslim community, it also highlights the many ways in which young professional women closing in on thirty all face similar challenges in their personal and professional lives, regardless of religion.

Amra and Zainab have been best friends since childhood. They are a part of the same Muslim community in Boston and they have shared their hopes and dreams for years. Now adults, both of them are successful, professional women who face challenges both universal to young American women of all stripes and some unique to their ethnic heritage. Amra is a lawyer on the partner track at her law firm. She works ridiculous hours in pursuit of her professional goal, the culmination of years of top notch education and her ambition to prove herself. Zainab is a rising political star in the campaign of outspoken and controversial Republican Senatorial candidate, Eleanor Winthrop-Smith and has drawn the attention and ire of conservative radio shock jock, Charles Holland. Zainab is far less traditional than Amra in her identification as a Muslim woman but both of them are trying to build a happy and successful life for themselves as Muslim women in the US.

The novel is told from four different points of view, Amra's, Zainab's, Charles (Chase) Holland's, and Amra's white, Midwestern colleague/friend Hayden's. As Amra grapples with her desire to balance a more traditional marriage and motherhood to her former childhood crush with her pursuit of a partnership in her firm, Zainab must repeatedly bail her boss out of tight spots and decide how she feels being made the face of Muslim America, especially in an America so charged with distrust of, misinformation about, and fear of Muslims. Chase publically stirs up animosity against Muslims and Zainab in particular on his radio show even as he is intrigued by the warm and fascinating woman that she is when he meets her privately while Hayden is lost and searching for love, acceptance, and meaning in her life which she thinks she's found when she converts to Islam and falls in with an extremely judgmental, conservative fundamentalist group.

The characters must look inside themselves to find the things that matter most to them. Is it relationship? Is it work? Is it principles? And whichever it is, what kinds of sacrifices will they make to achieve the life they want to lead?  That the three women are or become Muslim in post 9/11 American adds another layer of conflict to their decisions. Zobair has done a good job showing young women examining their lives, the attitudes around them, and the roadblocks they face as women and as Muslims. The characters are quite likable and they offer a different perspective on a community so often vilified for the actions of a few radicals. Even close friends Amra and Zainab are, at heart, quite different in their views and their choices. That there are romantic threads for each of them, Amra falling in love with the man her parents would have chosen for her themselves; Zainab and Chase's contentious, evolving relationship; and Hayden's affair with the man for whom she converts followed by her calm acceptance of an arranged marriage, lightens the story line and reminds the reader just how difficult it can be to balance all the parts of life while still trying to determine a path true to yourself.  Since childhood, at weddings in the community, Amra and Zainab have been painting their dearest hopes and wishes on their hands in henna.  How those wishes have evolved over time as they grow and change is a major thread in the novel.  And when each of the three women is pressed, by events out of her control, to make decisions about which wishes to pursue, they rise to the occasion beautifully.

Zobair doesn't shy away from presenting several different views of Islam and the life those who practice it are called to lead. She is respectful and understanding of arguments on both sides of the political spectrum, those condemning the conservative practice of Islam and those seeking to liberalize it, and shows the ways in which both sides can push too far. There are liberal, feminist Muslims here as well as fervent, unquestioningly conservative Muslims. And in portraying so many of the gradations in between the two positions, she has shown the diversity and difference within what is so often considered a monolithic group and culture. The chapters are short, flipping the focus from one character to another, and the reading is easy and quick. This is a fascinating look into the lives and choices of several successful women with respect to all aspects of their lives, including the religion that defines them, whether they choose it to or whether American culture has thrust that upon them.

For more information about Jennifer Zobair and the book, check out her website, find her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. Thank you so much for this kind and thoughtful review, and thanks for being part of my tour. I appreciate it so much!

    All my best,


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