Spoilers for the ending of the novel, by the way.
“Exit West” is a romance novel. It’s many more things, of course: an analysis of the migrant experience; an examination of religion, culture, and skin color’s various roles in society; et cetera. But at the core of the book is Nadia and Saeed’s relationship, and for this, it’s a romance novel.
The ending of the book might lead a reader to think otherwise. After all, Nadia and Saeed split up! They don’t talk to each other anymore! What kind of romance novel is this? Where’s our happily ever after?
I would argue that “Exit West” is a more accurate and mature romance novel than most works of fiction we consume in our day-to-day lives. Most relationships don’t last for a lifetime. We romanticize and glorify the lucky ones that do as some sort of perfect “true love” that everyone should try to achieve in their life, and that can lead to people sticking to relationships that aren’t working or feeling inferior because they didn’t find what society says they should be searching for.
“Exit West” doesn’t do that. Nadia and Saeed make each other happy for a while, but the events of the book change them both, and they go through some rough patches. They realize things aren’t working, and rather than lashing out or clinging to an unwilling partner, they mutually agree to end it.
We’re led to believe from the very beginning of the book that Nadia and Saeed are “meant for each other.” Their meeting is the first major event in the book. Saeed’s father tells Nadia to stick with Saeed and make sure he stays safe (although he, too, recognizes that she might want to leave when he gives her an out). Both are quite likeable characters, and more than anything, we want them to stay together because we’re rooting for their relationship.
But it’s okay to let go. Nadia and Saeed recognize that at some point. A relationship’s success isn’t measured by how long it lasted, but by whether it was healthy and improved each party’s life, and by that metric, Nadia and Saeed knocked it out of the park. It’s about the journey, not the destination.
We shouldn’t measure success by someone’s connection with others and how long it lasted, but whether they were able to better themselves by forming those connections. “Exit West” does just that.