The Dullness of Painted Hands

"Painted Hands: A Novel" by Jennifer Zobair, to be published June 11, 2013 by Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN-13: 978-1250027009

"Painted Hands: A Novel" by Jennifer Zobair, to be published June 11, 2013 by Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN-13: 978-1250027009

When I was a student living in Germany, I clearly remember sitting in a dormitory for Eastern European asylum seekers, sitting on a friend's bed, reading a paperback book of Camus essays and being so incensed that I ended up literally throwing it across the room with so much force that it smacked the opposing cinder block. I have also loved books so much I've started re-reading them immediately upon finishing them, I have carried them around with me like so many lucky talismans; I have folded their pages, and written in their margins, and treated them like a beloved thing from childhood that shows the affection lavished upon it by its own wear and tear. 

Unfortunately, when I finished Jennifer Zobair's "Painted Hands: A Novel", I was bored.

Before continuing, I should note that Jennifer Zobair and I are friends, and even though reviewers ideally shouldn't let their personal feelings peek through when evaluating another friend's art, I was, genuinely, rooting for this book. I wanted to like it. It addresses issues of feminism and multiculturalism in the text, and these are issues I am passionate about. The problem with the book is that it does it in a way that is unsubtle, inserting multiple debates on Islam in the text and sacrificing good story telling along the way. For instance, Zobair has written into her story an Ivy League debate at Harvard between Chase, a right-wing talk radio personality, and Taj Fareed, an academic, on the subject of Islam, but instead of transporting us there, instead of making us feel like we are in the room listening in, we are told, "The debate, or at least the first three quarters of it, was a civilized affair." The lack of a sense of place is a consistent problem throughout the text: we are taken to the Correspondents' Dinner and the most evocative thing we are told is that it, "was a blur of red-carpet frenzy, tame Rich Little jokes, carnivore-friendly food, and the pretense of not being completely starstruck"; we are told we are at "Porter Square Books" without any sense of what this place is or why it is important as a setting, and - most egregiously - we are taken to "Peet's on Labor Day weekend" without knowing, from the story, that Peet's is an iconic coffee shop in Harvard Square. To get any sense of Greater Boston in this book, the reader needs to have gone there first, experienced it first, in real life, before picking up on these brief mentions of location. Needless to say, this is not how good story telling happens. 

In addition to rushing from one scene to another, Zobair has written one of three main characters with such an implausible story line and such inexplicable motives that I found myself laughing out loud when confronted with her chapters. "Hayden" is a white, female lawyer from Colorado who falls in love with "Fadi", a man she meets at an abruptly cancelled wedding, who is engaged to a friend of her close friend, Amra (Amra meets Fadi through Hayden before meeting him later at Amra's friend's engagement party - unfortunately no hijinks ensue). 

Hayden, then, converts to Islam.

A (conveniently, from the point Zobair is hitting us over the head with) conservative strain of Islam that creates an arranged marriage for her with the female leader's son, who she eventually walks out on while he is asleep. While journeying through these implausible plot points we are treated to contrived moments of experiencing Islam for the first time as a convert ("But there were even more rules than she had imagined"), and tedious lectures on the evils of feminism ("Well, of course, I am just suggesting that perhaps women don't need to insinuate themselves into everything"). The point is clear: as a reader, you are supposed to empathize with Hayden and see through her eyes the extremes of Islam, so that you may safely fall back into the arms of self-determined feminism. 

The point is clear, it is so very, very clear that you have to thrust your feet in waders as you slog through the scenes with her character, navigating your way between dress codes and conservative talking points toward some high moment of plot resolution that never comes, because Hayden just sneaks out the back door.

Zobair's other main characters, Zainab and Amra, also have some moments of grappling with being contrived (Zainab, a campaign operative for a female, Republican candidate, inevitably has a relationship with Chase, the aforementioned, right wing talk radio host, while Amra navigates her parents' efforts to marry her off). However, there are moments when Zobair allows these two characters to deal with real problems as real women, and this is when the book shines. Amra's working-woman-while-pregnant stress is poignant and real, and the section where she gives birth to her daughter via an emergency C-section is written with care and compassion. Zainab also has a strong moment when, after a bombing attempt by two American converts to Islam, she refuses to issue her own statement condemning the bombing, a statement which would have been, as Amra puts it, "public and infantilizing and worse."

These exceptional moments are unfortunately few and far between, and by the end of the book the reappearance of another friend, Rukan, and a second boyfriend, and a wedding to make up for the one that was previously cancelled, hardly makes the journey to get there worthwhile. When I did get there, when I ended this book, I felt neither enlightened nor enraged, neither inspired nor in the throws of torrential sorrow, I was just bored, which is a terrible way to end what should have been a much more transportive and transformative book.