Mr Right's gotta have faith
Randa Abdel-Fattah's No Sex in the City.
Armed with a long checklist to find Mr Right, 28-year-old Sydneysider Esma is on a mission to find a husband. She has three great friends and a host of well-intended, albeit at times patronising hangers-on such as her employer, her family and her broader social network.
Her friends, like her, are juggling careers with social activities along the quest to find a man. Thus the literary players are in place and the stage has been set for another light and fluffy chick-lit offering from the book publishing world.
However, there is a difference. This one, authored by Australian Randa Abdel-Fattah, is surprisingly titled No Sex in the City. The central character is a Muslim woman who needs to find a Muslim man to satisfy her dating criteria.
Abdel-Fattah's previous titles are mostly teen fiction, including the Australian Book Industry Award-winning novel Does My Head Look Big in This?, about a girl growing up in Australia who wears a headscarf. In many ways, the tale about four women in their late 20s, set in some of the best-known suburbs of Sydney, is familiar - which is exactly what Abdel-Fattah was aiming for.
''These voices are not just sexy and exotic - they are normal and mainstream,'' she says.
With the clear reference in its title to the Sex and the City franchise, Abdel-Fattah has aimed to take another look at modern feminism, without becoming too serious or heavy-handed.
''What I found so funny about the Sex and the City series was that it was in a way whitewashing women,'' she says. ''They were four white women in one of the most diverse cities in the world and we got trapped in this whitewashing, and characters with other ethnicities were very tokenistic or not strong enough to carry their own storyline. But people from different backgrounds have different ways of going about finding 'the one'.''
Abdel-Fattah says she had also sidestepped the issue of fashion-dominated lives for her main characters. Instead, they did volunteer work, while Carrie Bradshaw and her friends went shoe-shopping. ''I didn't want frivolous characters who thought there was nothing more to life than finding 'the one','' she says.
Where the Sex and the City characters rarely mention family, these characters have them close by and engaged in their lives.
Abdel-Fattah says she also wanted to dispel common myths about arranged marriages.
''The woman is protected from a lot of what goes on in Sex and the City in terms of the rollercoaster romances and break-ups with boyfriends,'' she says.
''It's not as bad as you think. She is introduced by her family and there is an unambiguous statement about what the intentions are up-front. It's not about boyfriend and girlfriend and maybe a fling. It's about marriage.
''An arranged marriage comes in many different ways.
''In the arranged marriage, the families are involved and they play a part. This was about demystifying it and overcoming the myth that an arranged marriage is a forced marriage.''
Abdel-Fattah says she fell in love with her husband on what she described as a ''lounge-room date''.
''His sister was best friends with one of my close friends in Sydney and his family visited my family, and the first time we met was at my grandmother's home and it was a lounge-room date. And it was love at first lounge-room date. It was my friend's idea and they went through my parents and his parents. My parents would never have done anything without my consultation or agreement.''
Abdel-Fattah says that while the women in her book grappled with some of the same things she faced, the story was not autobiographical.
''I really get these voices from the experiences of a lot of my friends and family trying to find love and compatibility when you have a religious belief system that's not a part of the mainstream, it's a minority,'' she says. ''When something like a checklist [for Mr Right] has an extra criteria of having the same faith as you, then your pool of people who are [eligible to date] suddenly becomes a lot smaller.''
■ No Sex in the City. By Randa Abdel-Fattah. Macmillan Australia. $27.99.