The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is a book by Nadiya Hussain, best known for winning The Great British Bake Off 2015. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book, considering that Nadiya’s background is not in literature. But she captured the nation with her warm personality, which shines through in her writing. It might also be the only book to have a character who genuinely likes being alone and isn't made to change her mind by the end of it.
The four sisters are all flawed but likeable, and they’re also different. If you gave me a random paragraph, I would be able to tell with some degree of certainty which sister was speaking. Fatima, the eldest, is thirty, still living at home and struggling to pass her driving test. It’s lovely to see a character struggling with something like this, but not being taken as a complete failure because of it. Bubblee is an artist living in London, who has a tendency to say things without thinking. She doesn’t want the life her parents want for her, but struggles to see how others might not want to life she wants for them. Namely her twin sister, Farah, who is happy being a wife, very much in love with her husband, and struggling with infertility, wanting children. They're twins but very different people, but more alike then they think. Mae can take the longest to warm up to. On the surface, she’s a bundle of typical teenage girl traits, but underneath, there is more to her character. She is always on her phone, mainly because she records everything. She runs a YouTube channel, not vlog style, but more as a sort of docu-drama on her entire family, filming moments in their lives. She often tries to record personal, private moments, sometimes without the knowledge of the people on film. She can also be sanctimonious about her healthy lifestyle, and the health of the other characters. Trust me when I say that if you give her early chapters a pass, she does get better.
Is it me, or does every book now have to contain a character who does some sort of blogging or vlogging sort of thing? It’s not just in Young Adult – I noticed it in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah, too. When done well, it can be a fascinating look at something many people aren’t familiar with. At its worst, it comes across as condescending, an adult trying to act down with the kids. So, did Nadiya strike the right balance? Yes, she did, since Mae's knowledge of the internet actually ends up helping the sisters out in the end. It's great to see the internet being used as a force for good.
I'm not even sure if Mae was a realistic depiction of a teenager or not. I know that young people now use social media more than even my generation did, 8-10 years ago. Wow, that makes me feel old. I find that increasingly in books now, I can’t get annoyed about how teenagers behave. I used to exclaim when teenagers were reduced to a few tired stereotypes. “Teens don’t act like that! I don’t act like that!” But now, I find I can’t say that because I don’t know how teens nowadays act.
I was disappointed by how little baking was in the book. The front cover shows the girls baking, with cooking utensils and cakes around them. It feels like a cheap ploy to get viewers from GBBO to give this book a try. I admit it worked on me, who was hoping that I’d get to read about delicious cakes being made. I know, judging a book by it's cover, shame on me. It’s not any worse of a story for it, and no doubt the cover choice is not Nadiya’s fault, but it’s worth mentioning. Baking does get a moment in the story at the end in an awesome way, however, so I'll let it slide.
The editing could also have done with a little more polish. There is a character named Annabelle who changes the number of N’s in her name while on the pages. I’m not sure if it’s Nadiya’s fault or her editors, or maybe both. Nadiya should have caught it before sending it off, and her editor should have noticed. It just feels like the book was rushed to print.
It won’t win any awards, but it’s certainly a good, fun read. I recommend this story to anyone with sisters. As an only child, sister stories always give me the odd feeling like I’m missing something I never had to begin with.