Rabi and Matthew uses the template of Romeo and Juliet to tell a story of love and hope amidst the ever-increasing virulence of modern day racial, political, and religious differences. Rabi Hashmi and Matthew Swain have been raised in a stew of loathing and hatred that has festered between the two families since the 1960s, after a car accident ended with a Swain dead and the Swains retaliated by murdering the man and his wife in cold blood. However, after Matthew and Rabi’s eyes meet at a party and the two feel a connection they have never experienced before, they are helplessly drawn to spend time together, even though their fathers are in the midst of a contentious political campaign for the U.S. Senate; moreover, even if their families could accept their sons being gay, past experience has shown that a Hashmi dating a Swain is a guaranteed trip to the hospital, and in the increasingly tense atmosphere, maybe even a trip to the morgue. Despite warnings from Matthew’s best friend, Jude, and Rabi’s brother, Eshaan, the two fall in love and make plans to be together until their families find out, leading to tempers and violence exploding throughout the two families and the community until someone makes the ultimate sacrifice for love in the face of hatred.
As a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet, the MCs here are, of course, head over in heels in love within a week or so, but Witt does a great job making it sweet and believable. Rabi and Matthew are two kindred spirits whose devotion to and love for their familial and religious beliefs leaves them isolated and alone as gay men, and even more so when they fall in love with “the enemy.” Their joy in talking and spending time together, the fact that they have both been waiting to have sex, and their chemistry and innocent enthusiasm in holding hands and kissing is lovely and provides an even bigger contrast to the unwarranted hostility in their environment. Because they are meeting in secret and due to the extreme reactions Matthew’s family might have, the MCs are fairly isolated in their interactions with people throughout the story. When they are not together, they are mostly fending of the suspicions of Eshaan and Matthew’s parents, which becomes a bit of a repetitious loop until about halfway through the book when the action kicks into high gear. While I personally would have liked a bit more of Jude and Rabi having pleasant interactions with anyone other than Matthew, between the highly volatile atmosphere and the source material, it doesn’t detract much from the story.
After the quiet, stealthiness and undercurrent of fearful defiance of the previous two “acts,” the third is filled with increasing violence and tragedy that is surreal and painful in its utter preventability given that it is fueled solely by unwarranted vitriolic poison passed down the generations. The scope of the violence and rapid escalation are hard to read, and most people will be able to take comfort in the idea that it is done for “dramatic effect”; unfortunately, the situation Rabi and Matthew find themselves in given the small-town politics and prejudices are actual realities that don’t always end in a HEA.
While I did enjoy this book, it was not an easy read. The Hashmi and Swain history is VERY ugly, with Matthew’s family being unapologetic, violent Islamophobic, homophobic white supremacists. Although, Matthew does not agree with his family, he is the epitome of the complacency that is the underpinning of oppression. As a twenty-one-year old who relies on his parents for tuition and room and board, Matthew is content to not only remain quiet, but offer his support to his father’s campaign and views in order to not rock the boat. By the time he is willing to do something about it, only after being called out by Jude after a harrowing encounter mind you, any chance he may have had to be a continual voice of reason in his family is lost in a sea of tragedy. I know that paying your way through school can be tough, but considering he only had one year left and his relationship with Rabi brought up how terrible his white supremacist family is, Matthew never even considers walking away from the privilege his family and skin color affords him. However, I like that Witt used him to illustrate an often-overlooked issue when it comes to changing hearts and minds—when good people can’t give up some of their own comfort in the face of such evil, the status quo remains.
Having never been a big Romeo and Juliet fan, I am glad I read this well-written re-telling that refuses to “bury it’s gays,” and has an HEA for the couple that does not completely gloss over the hard work the families and the community will have to do in the future. Despite the ugliness and sadly realistic world Matthew and Rabi portrays, there is plenty of beauty to be found.