Now that there is legitimately a genre of YA Islamic Romance out there told in Own Voice, the expectations are high that a book is compelling, realistic, and unique somehow. While the author’s first book, Saints and Misfits was pretty ground breaking, this 342 page was a great read, but not nearly as remarkable or memorable. Granted it is not fair to compare the two books, and each day I do age out of the target demographic, but while the story reads authentic and true, albeit a bit serendipitous, it doesn’t have the teeth or grit I was kind of hoping for, and with a mother who suffers from multiple sclerosis my emotions were pretty invested.
Told from both Adam and Zayneb’s perspectives by way of their individual “Oddities and Marvels” journals, our two characters are presented by a narrator who keeps their story on track and interjects when their versions of an event differ.
Zayneb is a high schooler and activist who has recently been expelled for threatening a teacher who consistently lets his Islamaphobic beliefs take over the days lessons. In an environment filled with micro aggressions against Muslims, Zeynab’s parents are at a loss at how to keep their daughter from making waves, and thus allow her to leave her Indiana home a week before spring break to visit her aunt in Doha, Qatar.
Adam is at University in London where he has recently been diagnosed with MS and as a result has stopped going to classes, and is literally “making” the most of the time he has by making things. As the term ends and he officially withdraws from school, he heads home to Doha to tell his dad and sister that he has the same disease that took his mother’s life years early.
The two characters meet at the airport briefly and then again on the plane and then at Adam’s house and the needless to say their accidental meetings allow for friendship to grow, attraction to be built upon and a relationship to develop. Both characters have their own lives and own obstacles and own maturity that needs to occur in order for a happy ending to take place, and thus the book keeps you interested, invested and cheering them on.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love the dynamic of how the book and characters are set up. Both are practicing Muslims, both characters don’t cross a line, both characters have diverse mixed cultural backgrounds, and one is a convert and the other the daughter of a convert. She is fiery and impulsive and emotional, he is pragmatic and calm and quiet. While they have some background in common, their life experiences are rather different and it is very much a story about opposites attracting.
I’ve been waiting for this book to come out, and so I knew my expectations would be too high. That being said the book warns it is a love story and in some ways, that was what I kind of felt was lacking. There was the physical attraction that was mentioned fairly often, but the deep connection of ideas or growing seemed a bit lacking.
I really liked Adam, and his internal stresses and struggles and coming to grips with his disease seemed pretty developed. Somehow though, and I’m probably in the minority, I didn’t love Zayneb. She is impulsive and definitely learned and grew from the start of the book to the end, but I didn’t love her nuances with dealing with the Emmas and her friends back home and unraveling her teacher, it felt kind of forced and I can’t articulate why. I’m glad she matured and she got answers about her grandmother, but maybe I should have felt so much in common with her and when I didn’t, I felt a little irritated. Clearly I get too invested in fictional characters, I’ll admit that.
I like that Islam is presented in a non defensive way. The parents aren’t evil, there is no rebelling, even the awful teacher spawns backlash and allies to Zayneb and her cause. There is no apologizing or overly explaining if the characters are pushing boundaries established by Islam or if they are establishing their own boundaries based on their understanding of Islam. I like this, because it shows that Muslims are not a monolith, we are not one way good or bad. Zayneb covers and prays and has friends that are boys and her family is kept in the loop of what she does, which alone breaks so many of the predominate stereotypes about Muslims. Adam himself converted at age nine and plays the guitar and has friends that are girls, and is close to his sister, and likes dogs. A side character is noted to be incredibly religious, but doesn’t cover. The story takes place in an Islamic majority country, but attitudes at the swimming pool don’t allow Zayneb to dress modestly while she swims.
Overall, the book is a delightful read that manages to keep the religious integrity in the characters and show their personalities as they come of age. It may not be memorable years after reading, but what you do remember will be positive, and while you are reading it, you will have a hard time putting it down.
There is angsty romance, and talk of sex. The two main characters keep it pretty clean, but the side characters joke about hooking up, being horny, and sneaking off to hotel rooms. The non Muslim aunt has a secret alcohol and cigarette stash that she gets called out on, but nothing more is mentioned about it. I think 9th or 10th grade and up will be perfectly ok to read.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
There is a lot to unpack in this book and I think if one just listens, teens will naturally add their own opinions and perspectives on EVERYTHING the characters experience, feel, question, and cope with. The book just came out, but I would imagine that over time discussion questions will appear.
Author’s website: https://skalibooks.com/books/
Interview with the author: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/teen/an-interview-with-s-k-ali-author-of-love-from-a-to-z/