If somehow transported to contemporary America, Anna Karenina would skip the train station and go hire a divorce lawyer instead. Romeo and Juliet would move away from their parents and, like every young couple, live off their credit cards. Instead of marrying Charles Bovary, Mademoiselle Emma would find a much more suitable match on eHarmony. These sturdy stories would collapse if written today, but fortunately -- for novelists, at least -- there are still religious fundamentalists who will act against their own romantic self-interest and deliberately choose not to be happy.
Throughout Ayad Akhtar's first novel, "American Dervish," we wonder if its heroine, Mina Ali, is destined to become one of those old-school marital sufferers.
Like the djinns of her bedtime stories, Mina is a creature made of fire, able to change form at will. Hayat Shah, the book's young narrator, calls her "enlightened and devout, intrepid and passive." She wears a burqa and blue jeans, studies the Qur'an, watches "Dallas," reads the letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and masturbates, although not all at the same time. When she moves from Pakistan to the Shah household in a Milwaukee suburb, she catalyzes both the novel and her host family. The father spends more time at home, the mother softens, and their son, Hayat, experiences a religious and sexual awakening. To their considerable surprise, the family becomes happy.
Right on cue, Mina falls in love with Dr. Nathan Wolfsohn, who would be Mr. Right -- he's smart, kind, successful and sensitive -- if only he wasn't Jewish.
Akhtar comes from the world of movies -- he was the star and co-writer of the terrorism thriller "The War Within" -- and in an interview with his publisher he has said, "I want the reader to feel fully immersed in the world of the story in the way that a good movie can make you feel fully immersed."
"American Dervish" is certainly cinematic, which is perhaps its greatest strength and weakness. The plot gallops along, but in its need for speed the prose occasionally sacrifices precision. And the narrative is so tightly constructed, with every scene serving a dramatic purpose, that it sometimes seems as if the characters don't have independent lives outside of the story. When Hayat leaves the house, which is rare, it's to read his Qur'an at recess or visit an anti-Semitic mosque. But without the pleasurable bagginess of its 19th-century forebears, "American Dervish" is free to accelerate toward its climactic confrontation. And perhaps we wouldn't want any distractions from Mina, an affectionately rendered heroine who is as complicated as an actual person. Expect to see her, and this novel, at a book club near you.
Matt Burgess is the author of "Dogfight, a Love Story," which is available in paperback from Doubleday. He teaches writing at Macalester College.