There’s a reason why Jane Austen’s Emma (and by extension, Amy Heckerling’s film Clueless) is considered a classic. It’s the ultimate paragon of the Romantic Comedy. A woman and a man meet and they don’t like each other. They’re forced to spend time together, and eventually realise they actually like each other. They fall in love and la de da de da. You know how it goes.
It’s the classic “hate to love trope” that’s served Hollywood for decades. But just because it’s a dead breed (tragically) doesn’t mean we can’t indulge in its juicy dependability for the endearing through the literary form.
The Matchmaker author Saman Shad is good at describing the kind of torture one endures in the days after meeting someone new.
Saman Shad adds layers of culture and race to the trope in her debut, The Matchmaker, in which we meet 33-year old professional matchmaker Saima, who is known in her local Parramatta district as the “unconventional” one. That’s because she’s single, has never married, and prefers to match people based on compatibility and interests rather than religion, ethnicity, and caste.
But Saima’s dogged commitment to her more “Western” methods may no longer be serving her – her finances are spiralling as her client list shrinks, and people in the Desi community are beginning to disparage her “progressive” ways.
A dash of the ridiculous is always required in the best romcoms, and in this, Shad delivers.
One night, on her way home from a wedding, Saima gets into the wrong car (mistakes it for her Uber) and leaves her glittering high-heels behind. Her driver is a handsome doppelganger of Dev Patel, who just so happens to be, like her, a “Third Culture Kid” – children raised in a country (or countries) outside their ethnic heritage.
Kal – really Khalid – is a North Shore son of shipping magnates. At 30, he owns his own apartment, sports a designer beard, and before meeting Saima dated only white women — to the dismay of his conservative parents. All they want for their son is a nice Pakistani woman who’ll fulfil the duties of a mid-century wife.
Fortuitously – every contraption of this genre requires some element of magic or luck – Kal’s parents meet Saima at a wedding and propose a deal: she must find a way to “randomly” bump into Kal and suggest her services to him – basically Tinder or Hinge, except you have a human executing the algorithmic treatment.
I reckon the best sort of romance takes place over a long period of time – attraction might not be instantaneous, but affection develops gradually, maturing and deepening with the passing of time. These sorts of romances understand that love takes time; that trying to understand someone completely, though futile, breeds its own kind of ecstasy.
The romance between Saima and Kal ferments over months, yet Shad manages to keep the momentum of their mutual crush with good pacing. There’s a certain kind of torture one endures in the early days after meeting someone new, and Shad describes this torment well.
The book is her ode to middle-class Pakistanis living in Sydney; it sympathises with all generations while refusing to take sides. For third-culture kids, interracial dating can be an activity loaded with great pain (racism is not dead, unfortunately), and as for their parents, the silence around mental health disorders can be its own source of grief.
“Do you ever wonder whether the way we were brought up taught us to stay quiet about the things that matter?” Kal ponders to Saima. “Open conversation wasn’t really our parents’ forte,” she responds, highlighting the essential truth of the book; that the damage done by things left unsaid serves no one in the long run when it comes to something as vital as love.
The Matchmaker by Saman Shad is published by Viking, $32.99.
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