The Chai Factor
I started reading The Chai Factor with the expectation of a frothy, funny, and light-hearted rom-com. The blurb promised a barbershop quartet, after all! By the time I finished, I knew that I was both right and wrong. It’s a rom-com in every sense of the word: disastrous meet-cute (or a meet-disaster), comic and endearing secondary characters, witty and laughter-inducing dialogue, swoonworthy moments, and a well-earned happily after.
TW/CW: It also deals with serious topics such as Islamophobia (actions and words, the latter directed toward a child), homophobia within Amira’s Ismaili community, street harassment, racism/sexism in the workplace, and eating disorders.
The Chai Factor is simultaneously endearing and heart-wrenching, and I wholeheartedly recommend Farah Heron’s debut.
Amira Khan does not have time for distractions: she’s almost done with her grad-school thesis in engineering and has come home so that she can escape the noisy and busy campus. Yes, she’s just had an irritating and antagonistic encounter with a red-headed, bearded, and sexy flannel-wearing lumberjack on the train home. But that’s in past: all she wants is a quiet few weeks in her grandmother’s basement in Toronto. Surely, she assumes, it’ll be easy to finish her project in the comfort of her own home.
Oh, Amira. We all know that won’t happen. I started laughing as soon as the book started. Romantic comedies have a special way of creating someone’s worst nightmare; part of fun is to see how aghast their reactions are. For Amira, her worst nightmare is that her grandmother has rented out her basement to a barbershop quartet while they’re in town for a competition.
To make things worse: Duncan is of course the same red-headed, bearded, and sexy flannel-wearing lumberjack from the train. Maybe Amira’s despairing thought is right: “maybe there was a pissed-off Sufi saint out to get her.”
I don’t want to spoil the book’s premise too much, but you can guess what happens next: Amira and Duncan are stuck together and butt heads frequently and intensely. And to absolutely no one’s surprise (and my utter delight), Amira reluctantly falls in love with Duncan amidst engineering deadlines, musical interludes, and chai made at midnight — well, also at all times of the day, but I love when she makes chai at night. It feels so romantic! I kept on laughing and rooting for this couple.
There are many reasons why I love this book. Amira’s loving female relationships with her mom, eleven-year-old sister, grandmother, and best friend Reena; The Princess Bride references (I’m a sucker for any heroine to refers to her hero as “farm boy”); the musical references that kept on sneaking earworms into my head; and Amira’s continuous worry about how cultural differences would affect her relationship with Duncan. The list started getting out of hand when I started to outline this review, so here are the main ones:
1) Forced proximity. I love this trope. Sometimes it manifests in a snowstorm, sometimes it manifests in an “oops, there’s only one hotel room available and we have to share a bed.” Amira and Duncan aren’t forced to share a bed in the basement apartment, but they can’t avoid each other either (trust me, Amira tries and fails miserably). Sprinkle in some heated exchanges and intense chemistry, and my banter-loving heart was humming in happiness.
2) The gay secondary couple and the representation of homophobia within Amira’s Ismaili community. Two members of the barbershop quartet, Sameer and Travis, are in a serious relationship. Sameer is the grandson of Amira’s grandmother’s friend; he’s out to his friends but is still closeted to his grandmother and the Ismaili community.
Early on in the book, there is a subplot where Amira agrees to be Sameer’s beard and let their family members assume that they are romantically entangled so that no one would suspect Sameer’s real romantic inclinations. I was initially concerned about this subplot: I’m not a huge fan of deception and was unenthusiastic about Amira and Sameer spending most of the novel lying to their families.
Thankfully, the main consequence of this subplot is not the deception itself (which is barely on page), but how Sameer and Travis react to it. Travis is understandably frustrated and hurt that Sameer is unwilling to introduce him to his grandmother. But Sameer isn’t the villain, as Amira points out:
“She hated that Sameer was hiding Travis, but Amira got it. She was Indian. She was Muslim. She knew that so-called traditional values that many held on to, combined with over-involved families, meant Sameer had almost no choice when it came to upholding his family’s expectations, even if those expectations dripped with intolerance. She knew how soul sucking it was to be the subject of the hushed voices of judging aunties. Hell, she’d lived in since that day in the airport. Probably before that. She’d lived it since her parents’ divorce. Since then, her family had been skirting the fringes of their community. In fact, she couldn’t remember ever feeling that they completely fit in. Among them, but not one of them.”
Both Travis and Sameer’s feelings are understandable and sympathetic. They’re both right, and this is a crossroads that they have to pass or fail together.
I also appreciate how the novel portrays the homophobia within the Ismaili community. Intolerance exists within marginalized communities. Amira loves her community and her grandmother, but she doesn’t stay silent either. When she hears someone she loves make intolerant and homophobic remarks, she challenges them and demands that they be better. I admire Amira so much — she always fights against the status quo, whether it be in defense of her Ismaili community or within it.
3) Bantering, endearing, guitar-strumming, and baritone-singing Duncan Galahad. Yes, his last name really is Galahad. No, Amira can’t believe it either.
The book is from Amira’s third person point-of-view, so we learn more about Amira than we do about Duncan. Still, Duncan is easy to love and far from inscrutable. He never gets phased by Amira’s biting remarks or snark, and teases her right back. It’s not enemies-to-lovers, but these two do exchange some spectacular antagonistic banter. Plus, I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for musician heroes. Having a sexy voice is an A+ hero trait.
Duncan is white, and Amira spends a significant amount of time worrying if their relationship can survive a cultural clash. She worries for good reason: Duncan is a good man, but he isn’t perfect regarding matters of religion and race. When he messes up, Amira loudly calls him out on it and makes it clear that she won’t compromise. To his credit, Duncan acknowledges that he screwed up and is determined to be better for both his sake and Amira’s sake.
My favorite kind of hero is someone who can 1) acknowledge his biases/failings and 2) take steps to improve his behavior. It’s a good indicator that their relationship will survive in the future as Duncan isn’t arrogant enough to deny wrongdoing. He doesn’t ask to compromise or meet in the middle: when he understands that Amira is right, he nods and goes over to her side. This is why — even though we never see his POV — I adore Duncan. He’s the kind of hero worth swooning over.
4) Amira. Yes, just Amira. Pricky, imperfect heroines with fiery tempers have a special place in my heart. I know I’m making an assumption here, but I think Amira may be a “difficult” and “unlikable” heroine for some readers (I use quotation marks because I obviously don’t believe that she’s unlikable!).
She’s judgmental. She lashes out, sometimes without apparent cause or justification (and when it is unwarranted, she does regret it later). She’s quick to accuse people of racism and sexism (she’s usually right. It’s just that most people don’t publicly call out others on it). She’s bitingly sarcastic and funny. She’s defensive and will do anything to protect her family and friends. Amira is a lot of things, but she’s not nice and sweet. As Duncan says, she’s a prickly porcupine. I love Amira so much because pricky, imperfect heroines with fiery tempers deserve happily-ever-afters, too.
The very first time Amira meets Duncan, she’s irritated at him because he swoops to her side and pretends to be her boyfriend to ward off a creep hitting on Amira at the train station.
“Look, I don’t need some mouth-breathing neck-beard who just emerged from the lumberyard to save me with grand gestures.”
Duncan is the perfect romantic foil for Amira. He finds Amira’s confidence and prickliness attractive. When Amira deliberately antagonizes him, he doesn’t have a problem bantering back with her. Those two work so well on page because their conflicting personalities balance each other. Duncan doesn’t love despite her “unlikable” qualities; he loves her because of them.
“I knew I wanted you from the second you told me off when we met. Self-assured, confident women who fight for themselves are my catnip.”
I loved Amira from the beginning but I grew to love her even more over the course of the novel. Part of Amira’s defensive and prickly nature is due to just the way she is. But part of it is also because of an incident that happened two years prior:
Amira was taken out of an airport security line for a random extra check. The officials asked her a number of invasive questions about her family, religion, and more.
“This… endemic… sanctioned racism. It’s getting so much worse. It’s heartbreaking. The world is such a trash fire, and at that moment, I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I kind of lost it on them. You’ve seen my temper… and I was already stressed about school, about everything. They said I was being difficult. They almost arrested me, but in the end, I was let go after questioning.”
Amira went to the media to speak out about the injustice she suffered. But it quickly spun out of her control:
“But the media put their own spin on it. They implied it was worse that this happened to someone less religious, someone who doesn’t wear a head scarf and who grew up here. As if it was okay to mistreat devout Muslims.”
She became increasingly bitter and emotionally exhausted by the media furor. When journalists try to contact her today, she shuts them out and refuses to talk about it because she’s so tired. And the public spotlight didn’t leave her unscathed:
“I used to be very vocal on social media, but some right-wing nut sent up a call to arms to his minions, or something. The trolls pounced on me. It was vile. I got hundreds of messages. Vulgar, obnoxious comments. And they sent pictures. Graphic, violent images… Muslims being hurt, tortured… and then the threats against me started.” She looked up at him. “Honestly, Duncan, I was scared. I deleted all my social media.”
Poignant and painful moments like this, and the depth they reveal, contrasted with the laughter caused by Amira and Duncan. They tore my heart open, and made me want to rage against the unfairness of it all. I wanted so badly to give Amira a hug. The world was cruel to Amira, and she’s still suffering from the aftermath years later. I don’t have a problem with Amira being prickly, defensive, and antagonistic toward anyone. She’s a fighter, and I admire her so much for her confidence and strength.
Despite my love for The Chai Factor, I was frustrated by the lack of sex in the novel. Now, I’m not against closed-door romances (and have loved many a novel without explicit sexual content). But the lack of sexual content feels so weird to me because 1) their chemistry while bantering is so strong that the sexual sparks fly off the page and 2) there are constant mentions about how Amira and Duncan engage in “non-vanilla” sex (including the time when Amira ties up Duncan!).
There is so much sexual chemistry but no actual pay-off. Part of the problem, I think, is a lack of accurate expectations. I expected sex and when I didn’t get it, felt that something crucial was missing. Another problem is that I have no clue how to interpret marketing signals from illustrated covers: some have explicit sexual content and others are kisses-only. I likely wouldn’t have been as dissatisfied if someone had warned me before reading the book. Still, this complaint is only a very small dissatisfaction in an otherwise wonderful book.
As I pointed out in the beginning of this review, The Chai Factor is both a rom-com and an “issue book” (a term I personally despise, but I know many people use it to describe any book that deals with discrimination — in other words, any book that reflects reality). Some may think that the latter cancels out the former, but I disagree. The Chai Factor doesn’t stop being a rom-com just because it deals with the heart-wrenching realities of being a Muslim woman in Canada.
The Chai Factor would be a completely different book if it omitted any “issues.” Amira would be completely different if she wasn’t constantly on the lookout for anyone trying to hurt her and her family. For a significant section of the population, a racist and unfair society means that there is no escaping the “issues” that define their lives. But just because there is no escaping a sometimes harsh reality doesn’t mean that they can’t find love in an adorable and swoonworthy rom-com.
And The Chai Factor is very much a swoonworthy rom-com: it’s funny and sobering, it has witty dialogue and disquieting situations, and it’s sigh-worthy and rage-inducing. I laughed, I cried, and I cheered for Amira and Duncan. The Chai Factor is an essential book for your list of summer reads.