More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood: Not Just a Rom-con!

Two posts in a day?! Well, yeah, welcome to Readlogy! Today is my tour stop at More Than Just a Pretty Face BookTour organized by Hear Our Voice Book Tours and I divide my post into two parts; the interview and the review. There’s a lot I want to say and well, here goes nothing!

MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE
by Syed M. Masood

young adult | contemporary
publication date: 4 August 2020 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

SYNOPSIS

Danyal Jilani doesn’t lack confidence. He may not be the smartest guy in the room, but he’s funny, gorgeous, and going to make a great chef one day. His father doesn’t approve of his career choice, but that hardly matters. What does matter is the opinion of Danyal’s longtime crush, the perfect-in-all-ways Kaval, and her family, who consider him a less than ideal arranged marriage prospect.

When Danyal gets selected for Renaissance Man–a school-wide academic championship–it’s the perfect opportunity to show everyone he’s smarter than they think. He recruits the brilliant, totally-uninterested-in-him Bisma to help with the competition, but the more time Danyal spends with her…the more he learns from her…the more he cooks for her…the more he realizes that happiness may be staring him right in his pretty face.

REVIEW

Like I said at the top of this post, there’s a lot I want to say about this book. I’m trying to be objective about this and not let my personal feelings cloud my judgment. 

Yes, More Than Just a Pretty Face turns rom-com into something heavy. The book starts like any other YA book, with our main character, Danyal, struggles to keep up with his life. For Danyal, he’s always reduced to his looks. People don’t really take him seriously because he isn’t a Grade A student. Then there’s an arranged marriage going on, and things started getting interesting from there.

THOUGHTS WHILE READING 

  • Before reading this, I expected it would be just like another Muslim romance book and I did not expect it would be completely different! Danyal is more focused on his love with cooking and I just find it adorable.
  • I like it when a book lets teenagers be teenagers, I’m glad More Than Just a Pretty Face serves the trope.
  • And oh, it’s friends to lovers trope! I know you’d probably think, “isn’t it arranged marriage?” just wait and see!
  • Alright, here comes the best friends. Danyal has two best friends; Zar and Sohrab, in which they’re polar opposite. Whereas Zar is more laid back Muslim, Sohrab is the devoted one.
  • So, I’d like to talk more about Sohrab. I can understand why the rest of the characters don’t really like him, but that’s a conversation for later (aka, I’ll discuss it in a minute).
  • I DID NOT expect this book to turn into something heavy. There’s a discussion about historical erasure and colonialism, in which I’ll also discuss in  a minute.
  • Bisma Akram (hey we almost have the same name!) is one of my favorite characters beside Danyal and Suri.
  • For someone who has done something that is kinda unacceptable in Muslim community, I appreciate Bisma’s bravery for doing what’s right.
  • Really, this doesn’t feel like rom-com because the interaction and chemistry don’t grow until halfway through the book.
  • Which is why I just wish that their relationship is more explored, I feel like it’s a little forced. 
  • Same thing goes to Danyal’s relationship with his best friends. I want more interaction in between them. The lack of interaction makes other characters feel two dimensional.
  • I love the characterization of Danyal. In fact, I can relate to him. Although I can see where the author is going to take Danyal–it doesn’t quite reach it, if you know what I mean? Yes, Danyal is amazing, but there’s something that makes me think “oh I wish he was more developed.”
  • There are a lot of graphic details of food…and it makes me hungry.
  • This is not a halal-romance, so if you have a problem with that, I don’t think it’s wise for you to pick this book up! 
  • Otherwise, I also think romance is not the central point of the book.

THE CENTRAL POINT OF THE BOOK

So Ikram, if romance is not the center of the book, what is?

Well, my friend, I know this is marketed as rom-com, but there are a lot of discussions about colonialism, erasure of history and then there’s the Muslim representation everyone already talk about.

Colonialism and the erasure of history

“History is a myth shaped by the tongue of conquerors.” – Author’s note from The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

And it’s explained further in More Than Just a Story. Danyal is tasked to have a presentation about Winston Churchill, a historian figure his teacher (and many white people) idolize and the one who contributed to Bengal Famine in India[1]. The representation turns into Danyal speaking up about the erasure of history, because there’s no mention of Bengal Famine during the Churchill discussion held in Danyal’s history class. This reminds me of that one scene in Avatar: The Last Airbender where Aang enrolled in Fire Nation’s school, which turned out the Fire Nation claimed that the Air Nomads used military force to attack the Fire Nation.

I know that’s just a fictional example, then I wonder, how many times does the winner write history from their point of view?

In order to control people’s belief, point of view and memory, erasing part of history is the way to achieve that. To justify some of these historical figures’ action and movement, there are censorships–especially in school’s textbook. I think it’s a problem every person needs to be aware of. Remember, a hero can be someone’s villain if we see from a different perspective.

The length of history erasure goes beyond the colonialist and the colonized. One of the examples is no mention of Bengal Famine in the school’s textbook. Although history erasure is not the only problem colonialism left, we also have to learn the bright side of colonialism. 

Danyal, or rather, Syed M. Masood discussed the issue near the end of the book. When Danyal talked about his British Colonialism in India and Bengal Famine essay, one judge asked what if British Colonialism actually benefited India as well?

Believe me, this is a similar question I used to have when I have a history test. 

It doesn’t matter if Europeans modernized our country, it doesn’t matter if they introduced us to modern technology. It doesn’t matter if Herman William Daendels ‘accomplished’ making a Great Post Road that connects the entire Java. What about people who were executed? What about the culture that we were forced to leave? What about the massacre and genocide? What about living under someone’s oppression for centuries?

I don’t think it’s all worth it.

To sum everything, the whole theme of the book revolves around discussion about colonialism and history erasure. It’s important to talk about this theme to younger audiences, not only that they’ll understand more about the world’s issue, they’ll also learn how to not limit themselves to what their teachers told them.

THE REP AND THE ISSUE I HAVE

I know you’re waiting for this one. I just know you do.

I have seen people saying this is a bad Muslim rep because it doesn’t portray Muslim in an accurate way. This bugs me a little because (other than I can relate to Danyal), it feels like the ‘bad’ word here invalidating readers and authors who have the same experience. Let me remind you that we are all different Muslims; some are practicing, some are in between, some are not. Islam is a perfect religion, therefore Muslims are not. There would be people dealing with their religion similar and different from us, and it’s not our place to judge them as a bad/good Muslim. 

So do I think this is a bad rep because Danyal is not really a practicing Muslim and some of the characters did un-Islamic thing? No. There are people out there like Danyal and let’s not belittle them by saying they’re a bad rep and/or the author portrays a bad Muslim rep. 

But, I also have issues with the book, mainly because of how Sohrab is portrayed. Sohrab is the practicing Muslim who recently just re-learned about Islam and Quran. In Indonesia, we call this phase as “Hijrah”, taking the word hegira/hijrah in which Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Madinah. The hijrah context on this conversation is when someone “migrates” from being a sinful person to a better person. It’s a good concept, but some people who just re-learned Islam and Quran acts like they’re the only best and smartest Muslim, then start judging everyone. Kind of haram police, and sadly, this is how Sohrab is portrayed.

While I understand other characters’ struggle with Sohrab, I just think his character is portrayed in the most stereotypical practicing Muslim ever. I know that in real life, the practicing and hijrah folks are able to have fun, only some of them are the haram police, but I don’t think portraying a conservative Muslim character in a negative way isn’t harmful.

Indonesian Muslim have our own issue regarding the conservative and non-conservative Muslim, which is a conversation for another day. But, we’re currently talking about the portrayal of Muslim in Western media, so I just think that Sohrab’s portrayal is pushing the “Muslim is strict and can’t have fun” stigma in between non-Muslim (and white people, and Islamophobia).

I can see what message the author tries to say, but I wish it’s done in much better way.

OVERALL

More Than Just a Pretty Face is neither good or bad, I understand why some people like it and why some don’t. Consider reading this book if you’re looking for:

  • a book featuring Muslim characters
  • a book where the teenagers just be teenagers
  • a book that tackles issues in the world

If you’re looking for South Asian rom-com, I suggest you should check Fanna’s recommendations! Fanna is a dear friend of mine and her blog is amazing, you should check her blog out!

5 thoughts on “More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood: Not Just a Rom-con!

  1. Love your post Ikram! I felt the same way about how Sohrab’s character was portrayed. I really liked the discussion about colonialism, I came to know a lot I didn’t previously have any knowledge of. From a fun contemporary PoV, I gave this book 4 stars.

    Like

  2. I’ve heard so much about this book!!! I don’t read that many rom-coms so I am pleasantly surprised to see that romance isn’t the central point of this book. I do LOVE the section that you mention about Winston Churchill — that’s something I always make a point to mention to my non-South Asian friends because it’s just! So true! that theme, at least, makes me excited. the issues with representation, though, are disappointing. it’s very true that everybody has their own experiences with their culture (for example: if I were a main character of a story, I’m pretty sure I would be called whitewashed) but playing into stereotypes isn’t the way to go. I really appreciated your review; it was really interesting and insightful ♥

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