The Reluctant Fundamentalist uncovers two failed love affairs, one with a person and the other with a nation. Changez the brilliant boy from Lahore, who was brought up in a utopian background with a loving family yet who faced financial difficulty, manages to get into Princeton with a generous scholarship, and bags one of the most coveted jobs in the country at Underwood Samson with his sheer diligence. He embraces his new job and the huge change from Lahore to New York; the enviable head start in his career is a treasured dream come true, and he doesnt spare anything in making the most of the opportunity by becoming the most valuable resource for his employer, only to throw it all away as he embarks on a journey, which is as much about self-realization as it is about self-destruction.
To begin with, for Changez, the journey from Pakistan to Princeton was a dream come true. (Pg. 3) He thrives on the energy of New York, and is proud to be a New Yorker, although he is critical of Americas nostalgia and sense of importance. His life is full of possibilities not the least of which is the possibility of achieving status, Underwood Samson had the potential to transform my life as surely as it had transformed him, making my concerns about money and status things of the distant past. (Pg. 16) On a pleasant day in Lahore, a bearded lover of America (pg.1.) reveals to a fearful American stranger his love affair and eventual break-up with the so-called land of opportunities, where he undergoes a transformation from a willing liberal to a reluctant fundamentalist. It is also a tale of unrequited cross-cultural love.
Changez finds a good friend in the beautiful, privileged, enigmatic Erica, also a graduate of Princeton, who ends up being at the heart of Changezs longing for happiness, fulfilment and acceptance on American terms. Erica is a representation of America. Like Changez, she is an outsider one got the sense that she existed internally at a degree of remove from those around her. (Pg. 24) The pair grow closer on a group trip to Europe. They go on dates and try to be lovers, at this time; she seems to be making a recovery. The relationship between Changez and Erica grew stronger when, after observing me struggle, she helped me separate the flesh from the bones of my fish without my having to ask. (Pg. 33)
Her action of separating the flesh from the bones of his fish is foreshadowing Changezs change from a Pakistani to an American. Changez has strong feelings for Erica, but much to Changezs despair, it is one-sided. Her grief from the lost of her first love, Chris, makes it impossible for her to have a real relationship with Changez. All goes well until one day when he switches on the television, witnessing the horror as one and then the other of the twin towers of New Yorks World Trade Centre collapsed.
And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased. (Pg. 83) Thus, begins his transformation as a fundamentalist in a land where he is taught to stick to the fundamentals. The single word smiled captures both the ruefulness and the wrath of the protagonist. He discovers that his inner voice is in conflict with his non fundamental beliefs. He feels inside him a transformation that comes with a niggling sympathy for the attackers; almost reluctantly, he finds himself turning into an America bashing radical. The 9/11 attacks are also a turning point for Changezs and Ericas relationship, as it acts as a catalyst for a relapse into her depression. At this time, America mirrors Erica.
As it is dealing with the grief from losing thousands of their people, they looked backwards at how much better their country used to be, so does Erica, as she looks back at her childhood love. She seems to be disappearing into the same powerful nostalgia as America as a nation was. She holds herself remote, is unable to adapt, and Changez comes to realise that she is profoundly depressed and will never stop clinging to her dead partner. When she is admitted to a psychiatric clinic, she later disappears, and it is assumed she has committed suicide. Just as the ending between Changez and the American is ambiguous, the lack of complete certainty about what happens to Erica is mirrored in this.
Now, Changez sees New York as separate from America, because America has taken on a new meaning. It is no longer a great, cutting-edge civilization, but a dangerously powerful and reactive beast. When Changez deplanes after his flight from Valparaiso, he sees New York as an imperial city of old. As he walks through the airport with a full grown beard, as a form of protest on my part, a symbol of my identity then going on to say I was deeply angry.(Pg. 148) he was subject to verbal abuse from strangers. This made him believe that everyone was against him, and just because he had a different hairstyle, he was accused of being a terrorist, making him feel angry and not feeling American like he did previously.
He purposely gets fired from his job at Underwood Samson and returns home to Lahore. There, he becomes a university lecturer, popular among students because of his belief Pakistan must gain international power. He is a political critic of America, but he is no terrorist. He is pushing greater independence in Pakistans affairs, becoming involved in protests, being labelled anti-America and receiving official warnings for his courses. This misleads the students, and one gets arrested.
He lets both his work team and his family down by quitting his job, and returning to Lahore. This is a very different Changez to the one met at the beginning of the novel, who wanted to live his American Dream. (Pg. 106) But is now letting it go so easily, as both his relationships with Erica and America have failed.
Although Changez develops a great amount of pride and confidence through his success at work, he, at last, get rejects by both Erica and America. Not only is her death the end of their relationship, but Ericas demise also symbolizes Changezs pathetically inevitable rejection by America.