When I pick a work of fiction to read, I tend to pick a story with a bit of whimsy, a dash of hope, & a spoonful of wit. I feel all the feelings long after that last page comes to a close, so I want to choose my feelings wisely.

This book went against the grain in nearly every way, & it was incredible. I’ll say it again. Incredible.

I only bought it because an older lady at Barnes & Noble told me I must, & if I’m going to crack under peer pressure anywhere, it’ll be at a bookstore. And even then, I let it sit on my table for six weeks before opening it to the first page.

Isra, a 17 year old girl in Palestine in the year 1990, has been told all her life her only value is what she can offer in the roles of being a wife & mother. When she is married off to a stranger, Adam, & moves to Brooklyn where he & his family live, she dreams it will be a new found freedom like the kind she learns about in the books she reads at night under her covers.

Deya is 18 years old in Brooklyn. It’s 2008. The oldest of four daughters, she’s felt like part of her has been missing since her parents’ mysterious car accident that killed them both when she was only seven. She was the only one old enough to notice how sad her mom, Isra, seemed her whole life. It’s not until a mysterious woman leaves a business card on her grandparents’ front step that she starts discovering answers to her past.

Fareeda, Isra’s mother in law, is determined to keep her family submerged in Arab culture despite them living in America. Her entire life has been sacrificed for the sake of her family’s reputation. She’s done her best to keep the focus away from her son, Adam, & his wife dying, & it’s only the tip of the iceberg of baggage she’s carried since living in a refugee camp as a young girl in Palestine. She’s determined to marry her only daughter, Sarah, off to a reputable Palestinian man, at whatever the cost, & it will be up to her to protect her four granddaughters until she can do the same for them.

A Woman is No Man alternates between these three women’s stories, connecting their desires, struggles, & how their individual stories unfold when it’s time to face the sole opportunity they were born to fill.

(Side Note: Physical abuse is a major occurrence throughout this novel, so if this is a painful trigger for you, I do not recommend.)

I’ve had a very surface level understanding of traditional Arab culture & the oppression their women as a whole come to understand as normal. But this story– reading this in depth perspective of one family over the course of generations– it blew my mind.

These characters are endearing & precious, strong & resilient. Isra, who often lost her words the moment she opened her mouth because nobody had ever asked her thought or opinion– my heart breaks over the strength she was forced to muster. I cannot imaging experiencing what she came to expect as this is the way it is. She only had her books that she had to hide & her daughters that brought shame to everyone else for not being boys.

Author Etaf Rum has opened a floodgate for voices that have been kept quiet for too long, & by reading this book, we all get the chance to ask ourselves, If I could live any life, what life would I choose? 

This story is tender. This story holds heartbreak in one hand & cultural tradition in the other. And as different as these women’s stories are from my own, I’m always amazed how stories teach me that we are all so much more alike than we are different.

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