As someone who reads a lot of books, I find it harder and harder to be surprised and enthralled with each new read completed. Stories that explore love, romance and family can often be repetitive, sometimes even predictable. This month’s novel was far from any of those things and left me lying in bed, AirPods in, unable to press pause on the audio.
Sara Jafari’s The Mismatch was published by Penguin in 2021. It’s been on my list ever since, and I’m only sorry I’ve just got around to reading it. The book is at its heart a romance, but it also offers insightful musings on identity, religion and class, alongside many other poignant themes. The story jumps back and forward in time, following Soraya’s life in the 2010s and her mother Neda’s, spanning the latter third of the 20th Century. Through a cross-generational narrative, Jafari explores how these two women navigate their first loves and first heartbreaks, as well as wrestling with their identities as British-Iranian women.
We first meet Soraya at the end of her studies where she stands on the brink of adult life. As a result of her strict upbringing and Muslim faith, she is yet to have sex, engage in a romantic relationship, or have her first kiss. She is plagued by the fear that Allah is watching her, mostly instilled (and often used as a threat) by her family. On deciding that she must engage in ‘kissing practice’ to prepare her for adulthood, she starts to date Magnus who on the surface appears to be a typical rugby lad. On the outside, he is a player and completely not her type – perfect for some meaningless experimentation. However, in classic rom-com style, Soraya quickly discovers that there is much more to him than meets the eye.
In the same way that Soraya’s chapters explore her burgeoning romance with Magnus and her coming-of-age story, Neda’s story documents her own upbringing and her eventual marriage to Soraya’s father, Hussain. Beginning with life in 70s Iran, a place alive with political and social change, Jafari carefully depicts the complexities of being a Muslim woman and the simultaneous joys and challenges that it presents. Neda chooses to wear a Hijab, unlike so many women in Iran at the time who see them as a threat to women’s liberation. This interesting look at feminism and how it can mean different things to different women was really refreshing, especially for the romance genre. In the same way that Soraya wrestles with her identity as a woman in modern-day Britain, Neda faces the same challenges throughout her life in Iran and later in the UK too.
I’ve seen this book compared to Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and I can certainly see the similarities. Jafari writes scenes of love tenderly and with intimacy, and I found myself holding my breath across multiple pages in fear of disturbing the story. While love is the central theme of the novel and is brought to life masterfully, it’s the messier ongoings in the background that make it exceptional. The Mismatch depicts stories of addiction, abuse, toxic masculinity and misogyny, all while highlighting incredible friendships, fraught familial relationships and love in all its glory. There’s so much to be said about this book and I enjoyed every page, particularly the audio version which is beautifully read by Ajjaz Awad and Afsaneh Dehrouyeh.
If you’re looking for a page-turning romance that offers more than just surface-level appeal, this is the book for you. I adored Sara Jafari’s debut and can’t wait to read more from this author. Support indie bookshops by buying The Mismatch here.
Words: Beth Barker
Beth wanted to contribute a monthly review to NRTH LASS in order to shine a light on Northern women writing great books. The North is very much underrepresented in publishing and she hopes a monthly review throughout 2021 will showcase the talent Northern women have to offer.