ARC Review – ‘Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating’

TITLE: Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating
AUTHOR: Adiba Jaigirdar
GENRE: YA Contemporary, LGBT+
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 352 pages (Kindle edition)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Penguin Random House on May 25th, 2021

Blurb from Goodreads:

Everyone likes Humaira “Hani” Khan—she’s easy going and one of the most popular girls at school. But when she comes out to her friends as bisexual, they invalidate her identity, saying she can’t be bi if she’s only dated guys. Panicked, Hani blurts out that she’s in a relationship…with a girl her friends absolutely hate—Ishita “Ishu” Dey. Ishu is the complete opposite of Hani. She’s an academic overachiever who hopes that becoming head girl will set her on the right track for college. But Ishita agrees to help Hani, if Hani will help her become more popular so that she stands a chance of being elected head girl.

Despite their mutually beneficial pact, they start developing real feelings for each other. But relationships are complicated, and some people will do anything to stop two Bengali girls from achieving happily ever after.

Adiba Jaigirdar’s debut novel  ‘The Henna Wars’ was about two queer teenage girls from culturally diverse backgrounds falling in love against a competitive school backdrop and examining deeper themes like homophobia, racism and cultural appropriation. Her new book ‘Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating’ is also about two queer teenage girls from culturally diverse backgrounds, also features a school competition in the form of Head Girl elections and also examines social issues. Formulaic? Quite the opposite!

Some authors pivot after writing their first book and jump to something completely different like writing for a different age group or in a different genre. This author has written another sapphic YA novel which could’ve easily been a re-tread of her debut (and honestly, there aren’t enough books in this niche, so you wouldn’t get many complaints!), but instead she impresses by taking a similar sounding premise and spinning it off into an entirely new direction.

The conflict between Nishat and Flavia was based on the latter appropriating henna from the former’s culture to get ahead in the school business competition. However Hani and Ishu’s book is focused on two Bengali girls so rather than a culture clash, we have a fascinating look at the dynamic between a pair of brown girls with similar roots, although one is Indian-Bengali and the other is a Bangladeshi-Bengali Muslim.

Basically they have speak different dialects and have different faiths, and while they understand each other like none of their classmates can, they also respond in completely different ways to attending a predominantly white Irish school. Hani is eager to fit in and goes by the name ‘Maira’ as this is easier for her white friends to say (ie. is less ethnic-sounding) while Ishu is fiercely standoffish and focuses solely on her grades rather than ingratiating herself to her peers. But while the girls have little to do with each other at school, their shared Bengali background means that they interact at Bengali events and so Ishu’s name is the first that pops out when Hani spontaneously contrives a fake dating plan to persuade her friends to accept her bisexuality. Initially when Hani approaches Ishu to talk her into going along with this, the latter rejects her without a second thought – but later gives in after thinking about how being seen to date one of the popular girls could benefit her campaign to become Head Girl.

Of course while this begins as a mutually beneficial arrangement, the fake dating trope demands that real emotions become engaged sooner or later, and watching the slow-burn romance unfold between Hani and Ishu is an absolute pleasure. Their personalities are polar opposites and the friction between them is amusing to read as the unstoppable force that is cheerful, happy-go-lucky Hani butts up against the immovable object that is prickly, antisocial Ishu. This is showcased in the alternating first person POV chapters that flesh out our heroines; Ishu’s sure to be the favorite with her snarky, cynical inner monologue!

The beauty of having two BIPOC girls as leads is that it means that it’s easier to head off any reader’s inclination towards stereotyping because rather than one depiction of a minority that people from largely white cities may not have encountered in real life, we’re presented with two different Bengali family dynamics. Hani is lucky enough to have two parents who are fully supportive of her bisexuality, defying the stereotype of rigidly conservative Muslims, but Ishu isn’t out to her parents as she’s worried about their reaction. She’s also intensely studious, living up to the brainy foreign student stereotype, whereas Hani is more laid-back about school and not driven to overachieve in the same way. And Ishu’s sister, Nik, is a significant secondary character who spent years being the favoured golden child but falls from grace by deferring university against her parent’s wishes; her arc is so relatable in a world where excellent grades are prized above all, but provide little foundation to building a happy, fulfilling life as an adult. She represents a different path again and the evolving sibling dynamic between Ishu and Nik is one of the book’s main highlights!

While the fake dating trope is usually a light and fluffy rom-com convention, the need for its deployment here is a symptom of one of the heavier issues brought up: toxic relationships. The reader’s enjoyment will largely depend on how much tolerance they have for the absolutely appalling way Hani’s so-called best friends treat her and whether her eventual discovery of the courage to walk away from a relationship that’s causing her harm is rewarding enough to overcome the sheer frustration and helpless rage caused by their behaviour throughout the book. This is an important arc that is treated with care and nuance, and it’s one that will resonate with many young women, but it may be upsetting or even triggering to read about.

Overall, the combination of the enemies-to-lovers and fake dating trope is pulled off brilliantly with a sapphic spin, so fans of these tropes who enjoy reading about queer and/or racially diverse girls will feel like all their Christmases have come at once! For everyone else, if you enjoy even one of these elements, you must try out this sweet, endearing and sneakily nuanced book to let it work its magic. Then to settle in for the long wait for Adiba Jaigirdar’s next sapphic masterpiece!

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