Book Review - No Sex in the City

Esma is a Turkish Muslim based in Sydney, aged 28, living at home, and still a virgin. She wants to stay that way until she meets “The One”. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s decision to explore a young woman’s attempts to remain true to her faith and traditional beliefs in a modern society is a bold one. In Esma’s world, family life is as important as her career and finding Mr Right. Her parents are Turkish immigrants and they participate in the hunt for a prospective bridegroom, with sometimes hilarious results.

Part of the pleasure of watching the popular television series Sex and the City was the friends’ endless verbal dissection of their sexual experiences. We empathised with them and laughed at their mistakes.

Abdel-Fattah presents four very different women seeking love and fulfilment and offers interesting variations on the usual tropes of chick-lit: Esma doesn’t believe in kissing, let alone sex, before marriage. She is happy for her family to organise blind dates and to meet potential suitors at their home. She sticks to her principles and, without undergoing a profound psychological or emotional journey, finds happiness.

For Esma, “dating” is limited to the search for a suitable marriage partner and her prudishness may grate with western readers. I couldn’t help feeling that contemporary fiction about women behaving badly is a lot more interesting than reading about dutiful daughters.

Fortunately, Esma’s three friends, Ruby, Nirvana and Lisa, fellow members of the No Sex in the City Club, are a little more flexible in their outlook and the dating mishaps they share are sometimes very funny.

Abdel-Fattah includes an interesting political dimension involving Ruby and Esma’s work with refugees and asylum seekers (Australia has  a terrible record for mistreating asylum seekers and Abdel-Fattah is herself a human rights activist).

There is also an engaging sub-plot about sexual harassment in the workplace. Esma’s boss, Danny, pays her inappropriate compliments, insists on asking her advice about his private life and posts incriminating messages on her Facebook wall.

Feminists and the liberal minded may find it hard to identify with  Esma’s self-imposed limitations. However, religious chick-lit is apparently a growing sub-genre and by focusing on the lives of four women of different faiths – Muslim, Jewish, Greek-Orthodox and Hindu – Abdel-Fattah will inevitably attract a varied readership. No Sex in the City is entertaining enough although, as the title suggests, it’s more Jane Austen than Candace Bushnell.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday