Can I admit that I was dubious?
I read the first chapter of Painted Hands with skepticism fully engaged. Second chapter, too. But somewhere around the third or fourth chapters, Jennifer Zobair’s Painted Hands transformed my doubt into something akin to astonishment. I was reading a book about attractive, accomplished women juggling careers and families and husbands and lovers, and enjoying that book immensely.
I didn’t expect to do so. Sure, Jennifer Zobair’s a friend, and I admire her way with words, but I started Painted Hands hoping — at best — to maybe enjoy a book that was outside my comfort zone.
I ended up loving it — and wondering how in the hell that happened.
It begins with a tight storyline and accomplished storytelling, and then combines several imaginative characters, and a deep, yet gentle immersion into a lovely, colorful and occasionally opaque culture that most of us know too little about.
The plotting in Painted Hands is intricate, but not to worry, for the author keeps the pace brisk and fluid. The story follows the lives of three Muslim women — Amra, Zainab, and Hayden – during a volatile time in their lives. The stories weave together gracefully, like the gorgeous henna designs lovingly painted on a South Asian bride’s hands on the day she is to marry.
Amra, the book’s sweet center, has worked for years to garner success, and now sits on the cusp of partnership at a prestigious Boston law firm. But when a childhood friend returns to her inner circle as a successful and handsome businessman, she’s not ready for the waves of emotion that engulf her. That he finds her charming, but doesn’t know about the sacrifices she’s made to have a career, is just the beginning of their story. He also carries secrets, including a more traditional view of Islam than she expects.
If Amra is the novel’s sweet center, Zainab brings fire and spice. She’s the book’s most complicated character, and her scenes spark with electricity. She’s working a Massachusett’s election campaign for a smart, but incautious, post-feminist businesswoman who actually answers questions from the media. Zainab must be brilliant and occasionally ruthless to keep pace, and she’s constantly switching play books to keep her candidate in the race. At one point, she turns to a highly-educated — and occasionally racist — right-wing radio host for a favor, and finds that Chase Holland is far more complicated and intriguing than he appeared at first blush.
Hayden is the book’s lost soul, the woman who makes many wrong decisions, and through whose eyes we see a vision of religion as filtered through a fundamentalist prism.
I found so many things to like in Painted Hands. The story is smart and topical, and the characters are richly, and lovingly drawn. I loved seeing Islam through Jennifer’s eyes, and learning more about what it means to be a Muslim in America today. It all works seamlessly because Zobair’s prose is subtle and refined, and so many scenes are touched by nuance that you might very well want to read it again.