Duty Free by Moni Mohsin

By Ekta R. Garg

October 19, 2011

Rated: Bookmark it! 

“Lahore has just three problems: traffic, terrorists, and smog.  Otherwise tau it’s just fab,” states the nameless heroine of Moni Mohsin’s debut American novel, Duty Free.  With this line early in the book, author Mohsin sets the tone for her frothy story.

The heroine, a member of the high society of Lahore, Pakistan, receives a charge from an aunt: find my son a new wife, the aunt says on a fine day at the end of September, and make sure he gets married by the end of the year.  Engaging emotional blackmail, the heroine’s aunt leaves our main girl no choice.  What ensues is a humorous examination of the upper echelons of social life.  After all, a girl may be charged to find someone a wife but she can’t do without her designer wear now, can she?

“I’m wearing my new cream Prada shoes I got from Dubai, so everyone can see and my new cream outfit I’ve had made to match,” she says, on describing getting ready for a social outing.  “I put on green contacts (blue is so past it) and my new Tom Ford red lipstick and now I’m looking just like Angelina Jolly.  But like her healthier, just slightly older sister.  I know I shouldn’t do my own praises but facts are facts, no?”

Mohsin’s story intertwines several elements that will sound familiar to South Asian readers: the obligation one feels towards one’s family, even if said family manipulates you; using major social events to hunt for potential brides; the struggle between older generations who cling to notions of class and background and younger generations who overlook such ideas for the chance of true love.  Yes, South Asian readers will smile in some places and nod along at others in Duty Free.

Non-South Asian readers may not necessarily understand all of the heroine’s exclamations or usage of expressions that South Asian readers will immediately get.  Mohsin definitely has chosen to camp on that side of the cultural line with this decision, so non-South Asian readers may lose the full effect of the heroine’s thoughts and exchanges with other characters.  But by the same token those same readers will still appreciate the heroine’s naiveté and thoroughly enjoy exploring Lahore through her eyes.

Duty Free is over the top exactly when it needs to be and self-absorbed in all the right places, although it’s not entirely without fault.  Mohsin’s story drags just a little bit in the middle; she uses many scenes to establish the heroine’s character and point of view on life, and the book could have done just as well without some of those scenes.  The story dawdles because of them.  But these scenes have the same overall effect that a school zone does: slowing readers down long enough to cause some mild irritation and maybe even a little bit of boredom but still allowing readers to move forward and reach their final destination.

Writing in a tone and with a plot reminiscent of Anjali Banerjee’s work, Moni Mohsin has a winner on her hands with Duty Free.


What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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