“Sway With Me” by Syed M Masood

Sway with Me, Syed M Masood (Little, Brown, November 2021) Sway with Me, Syed M Masood (Little, Brown, November 2021)

To his California high school classmates, Arsalan Nizami seems like an eighty year-old trapped in a seventeen year-old’s body and it’s not without reason. His mother died in a car accident some years back, his grandparents are no longer living, and his alcoholic father has moved to another state. Yet Arsalan has one living relative who is more than capable of taking care of him: his one hundred year-old great-grandfather, Nana. In Sway With Me, Syed M Masood’s new young adult novel, Arsalan is worried about his future after Nana is no longer around and takes his mother’s dying wish literally: to find love before Nana passes away.

In their Sacramento, California desi community, Arsalan wants to enlist the help of the local matchmaker, Roshni, to help him in his quest. He has two ways to connect with her. Roshni’s eldest stepdaughter is his science teacher at school and her younger stepdaughter is his classmate, Beenish Siraj, who goes by Beans. But Beans is involved in a scheme of her own—to disrupt her sister’s upcoming wedding—and enlists Arsalan in her plans.

 

The title of the book comes from the Dean Martin song, with which Arsalan is familiar because Nana has taught him to appreciate art, music, and literature from a bygone era. This poses a problem to Beans when she enlists Arsalan as her dance partner for her sister’s wedding. She just cannot understand why he dresses in outdated clothes, isn’t on social media, and knows very little about pop culture, all thanks to Nana.

Yet the two teens connect not just because of their schemes, but also because they both have estranged relationships with one parent. For Arsalan it’s his father and for Beans it’s her mother, banished from the family after acting in movies back in Pakistan that were seen as to include immodest dance scenes. As the teens work on their own dance routine—reenacting Bean’s mom’s movie scene—they reconnect with the fallen actress, who also lives in Sacramento. Her home is a feast for the senses and Arsalan finds familiarity there because of the stories Nana has encouraged him to read over the years.

 

The apartment was … a lot. It was overcrowded in the lavish style of the kings of bygone days, with elaborate patterns and bright colors everywhere. There was a lot of gold and deep maroon. It felt like a museum more than a place to live, which actually made me feel a little at home.

 

As the pair practice their dance routines, Arsalan’s father starts writing to him more and announces he’s going to arrive in Sacramento by the end of the year to take him back to Arizona, where he’s been living for several years. Arsalan doesn’t want to move away, especially since he’s getting closer to Beans and only has another semester before graduating high school. But most of all, he can’t bear to leave Nana.

It’s this intergenerational relationship that is this book’s strength. Nana’s character is charming and wise and Arsalan appreciates his idiosyncrasies, even though he jokes about his age sometimes.

 

I’d have to stay up late tonight to get ready for a quiz tomorrow on Measure for Measure. I was required, instead, to use our evenings together to improve myself, which was just another way of saying that I had to read whatever Nana picked out for me. I was in the middle of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius just then. He’d been a Roman emperor around 1800 years ago, when Nana had been young.

 

Even Beans is taken with Nana’s charisma and sometimes skips class to play chess with him during the day.

Masood, author of the well-received adult novel The Bad Muslim Discount, has written a YA novel in which the characters are all either children of Pakistani immigrants or immigrants themselves. He doesn’t go out of his way to explain cultural elements and instead weaves them into the story so that the reader can easily understand. Some readers may have difficulty relating to Dean Martin and Marcus Aurelius, but not the family issues: the dramatic tension derives not from a budding romance but from the father-son relationship. It is an entertaining story of two teens trying to repair some longstanding conflicts in their families. Along the way, they learn to accept and appreciate each other’s differences and find more than just a dance partnership.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.