It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that for a marriage to survive, certain unpalatable facts have to be buried.
Not so for British writer Monica Ali, whose new novel Love Marriage uses the marriage plot to unearth plenty of dirty laundry. Her first novel since 2011's Untold Story, a postmodern "fairytale" that imagined an alternative life for Princess Diana in small-town America, it continues her longstanding interest in how individuals and families respond when a conflict arises between love and duty.
Yasmin Ghorami and Joe Sangster, a pair of young doctors living and working in London, have recently become engaged and their families are on the verge of meeting. Yasmin, the daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants, has always been buoyed by the story of her parents' love marriage, in which her mother felt genuine affection for her suitor, and her father overcame his lowly start in life as a chai wallah to marry the woman of his choice and go to medical school.
Joe, conversely, was born into inherited wealth but grew up without his father present. His mother, Harriet, known as Harry, is a feminist provocateur with her own daddy issues. Having found herself relegated to the outer circles of the commentariat, she is primarily absorbed in writing her memoirs.
Yasmin's base level of sexual anxiety is exacerbated by the prospect of the two families getting to know each other. While Harriet remains notorious for posing nude for a magazine in the 1970s and maintains a collection of Indian erotica, "[i]n the Ghorami household sex was never mentioned". When the meeting does take place, initial impressions are favourable, but such equanimity is shortlived.
Before long, Joe is in therapy and the marriage of Mr and Mrs Ghorami is in disarray. Harriet is insulted when her son erects new boundaries for their relationship, while Yasmin begins to question whether her commitment to Joe has caused her to suppress her true desires.
The phrase "love marriage" immediately conjures its opposite: a union that is arranged. Ali explored this subject in her 2003 debut Brick Lane, and this time turns the lens back on to the western marriage plot, which, per Austen, is less about love and more about consolidating wealth, property and influence. Part of the narrative's complexity lies in how Yasmin and Joe's relationship prompts them to grapple with the ideas, romantic and otherwise, that they have internalised from both their families and society.
From the window of her childhood bedroom, where she continues to study for her medical exams, Yasmin can see a manor house which "had belonged to a great English family of slave traders and was now a community centre and café". This view is the backdrop for Ali's exploration of race relations in a country still coming to terms with its decline as an imperial power.
It is Harriet's privileged hypocrisy that initially provides much of the satirical fodder. Like the step-mother in the television program Fleabag, she collects exotic acquaintances in order to demonstrate her ethical commitment to social issues.
Overriding the unspoken wishes of the betrothed, she gleefully suggests an imam conduct the wedding ceremony in order to see "how many impeccable liberals of our acquaintance turn out to be Islamophobes".
But Harriet is not the only source of superciliousness and condescension. At a literary awards ceremony, a nominee casts a terminal prognosis over his writing career: "Look at me. White. Male. Heterosexual. Absolutely no chance." Meanwhile, Yasmin feels that her opinion is only sought at work because of her skin colour, and becomes embroiled in a race row after standing up to a patient's relative who demands to see an "English" doctor.
But like Elizabeth Bennett, Yasmin is also forced to examine her own blind spots. Indeed, by the end of the novel, no characters are recognisable as the people they were at the outset, and their rivalries and allegiances have repeatedly shifted in surprising ways.
Ali doesn't always succeed in making her writerly scaffolding invisible. At times, her deployment of medical acronyms stick out as enthusiastic displays of her own research, and it is hard not to feel that her own opinions intrude in her negative portrayal of the UK National Health Service.
Occasionally, the dialogue also strays into cliché ("Sometimes I'm horrible," Yasmin confides to a friend. "You mean you're human?" the friend replies).
But overall, Love Marriage is a resounding success. Ali's expert layering of untruths, both large and small, leads to a genuinely devastating denouement, which fully justifies the 500 pages it takes to get there.
Unlike Austen, there is no neat resolution because, as Mrs Ghorami says, "[m]arriage without risk is impossible."
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.