My friend Nancy L. gave me The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid for my birthday late last year. I hadn’t heard of it, but was intrigued when I read the dust jacket, and stuck it at the top of my to-be-read pile. I finished it yesterday and am glad I read it.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of Changez, a young Pakistani man who attends Princeton on financial aid, graduates at the top of his class, and joins an elite Wall Street valuation firm.  During his first few months in New York, he experiences the exhilaration of living in the city, making a lot of money, and working hard: basically, living as an American — or, at a minimum, a New Yorker — in outlook and lifestyle.

Two events fundamentally change his life: 9/11, and the mental deterioration of Erica, a Princeton classmate with whom Changez has fallen in love.

9/11 changes both the course and the tone of the book. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but generally, 9/11 causes Changez to re-examine his relationship with and his view of America. He returns to Pakistan for a visit on the eve of threatened hostilities with India, which he attributes in large part to America’s invasion of Afghanistan and the example it set of a more powerful country invading another without provocation.  He returns briefly to his job and his life in NY, but his world view is irrevocably altered, and he soon returns to Pakistan for good.

The story is told as a monolgue, spoken by Changez to an American he meets at a cafe in Lahore. His tone is unfailingly polite and formal, but as the book progresses, his anger and anti-American sentiment becomes more and more pronounced. This passage came up toward the end, as he relayed to his dining companion his feelings about post-9/11 America:

It seemed to me then — and to be honest, sir, seems to me still — that America was engaged only in posturing. As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own indifference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.  Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own.

The meal with the American, as well as the American’s uneasiness and paranoia about his surroundings, add a layer of tension and discomfort to the telling of Changez’s story.

The second plot – that of Changez’s doomed love for the fragile Erica – is, in my opinion, less interesting.  While it helps explain Changez’s increasing despondency and disconnection from American society, I found her a little tiresome. I read a review that says that Erica is supposed to be America (hence her name), which I found interesting, but I am not sure that theory holds.

This book is short, engaging, and incredibly well-written. It is also thought-provoking, as it turns the mirror on America and forces the reader to take in a pretty unflattering portrait of our nation. There are a ton of reviews of this book in the blogosphere – if you want to read some more, just do a search in Google Blogs. I will, however, pass along a link to this interview with Mohsin Hamid on NPR’s Fresh Air and this interview on I thought they were particuarly worthwhile.

Highly recommend this book. If you’ve read it (Nancy…?), please weigh in.