This 256 page YA OWN voice book is a real and raw look at a character and the many layers of life weighing down on her. At the center of it all is a strong Muslim teen dealing with post 9/11 bigotry, the shattering of her family, toxic friendships, and a broken heart. It is a love story, but it is so much more, as the protagonist’s voice draws you in to her crumbling world from the very first page and has you begging for more when the last page is read. So often in Muslim-lead-mainstream-romance-themed novels, I want there to be introspection at the choices that the character is making and the internal processing of navigating their wants with their beliefs, and this book surprisingly does it. There are some kissing scenes, cigarette smoking, cosmo magazine headlines, and waiting for her father to die, but not without introspection. Shadi reflects on her smoking quite often, she questions the repercussions of her actions, and she analyzes her father’s faith and approach to Islam as she forges her own relationship with the deen. There is mention of a Muslim character drinking, doing drugs, hooking up, and it mentions he had condoms in his car, just those exact phrases, nothing is detailed or glorified, just stated. There are also threads of mental health, self harm, death, and grief. The characters are genuinely Muslim and some of their experiences are universal, and some specific to the faith, culture, and time. Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the book, and I would imagine relate to different things, but find it overall memorable and lingering. For my Islamic school teens, I’d suggest this book for 17/18 year olds to early twenties. It isn’t that they haven’t read more graphic books, but to be honest, Shadi has a lot going on, and if being close to Ali can lighten her load and help her find hope and joy, I’m all for it. I know it is “haram,” but it is fiction, and it will have readers rooting for them to be together, not a message you may want to pass on to your younger teens. As the author says in her forward, “we, too, contain multitudes.”
The layout of the book bounces between December 2003 and the year before. In a previous time, Shadi’s life was easier, her brother was alive, she had a best friend, her Iranian immigrant Muslim family may have had stresses and issues, but they were a family. In 2003, Shadi is largely forgotten by her parents, her brother is dead, her father is close to death, her mother is self harming, her older sister preoccupied, and as a high school student Shadi is both falling and being crushed by her heavy backpack both metaphorically and literally.
The story opens with Shadi being approached by a police officer wondering why she is laying in the sun, he thinks she is praying, and she doesn’t have the energy to be angry by this assumption, she is exhausted, and doesn’t want to cause any waves that might get back to her fragile mother and cause any more stress than necessary. So she drags herself up, and begins the walk to her college level math class miles away. The sun is short lived and the rain begins to pour, she knows no one will come to pick her up. Her parents have long ago stop being present in her life. She once had a best friend, but that relationship, as toxic as it was, also has ceased to exist. So she walks, and she is drenched, and she falls, so she is now soaking wet and bloody. A car slows down to presumably offer her a ride, but then he speeds off drenching her in a tidal-wave. The scene is set for the tone of the book. Shadi is drowning, we don’t know all the reasons why, they unfold slowly, but we know that it is going to get worse, her phone is nearly dead and her sister has just called to let Shadi know her mother is in the hospital.
I don’t want to detail my summary as I often do, because the way the story unfolds, would really make any additional information given act as a spoiler. The book is short and a fast read, but along the way the introspection to the chaos that is Shadi’s life, makes it impossible to put the book down. Shadi will have to confront her crumbling life and find away to reach toward hope. She will have to keep walking to avoid drowning and along the way cling to the few precious things that give her joy: an emotion of great delight.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I really enjoyed this book. I loved the Islam and real approach to her volunteering at the mosque and calling out racism within the community and diving deep in to understanding is Islam more than just rules and toeing the line. It was a great mirror for so many nuances in real life, that I will probably re-read the book again in the near future, to enjoy it all. I absolutely love the unpacking of the toxic friendship. When women tear each other down under the guise of caring it is brutal, and the acceptance and growth that Shadi is struggling with in regards to her best friend of six years, Zahra. who is also Ali’s sister, is a reminder that sometimes walking away is the only choice.
The two criticisms I have of the book are: one-that the book is too short, I wanted, no, I needed more. And two I didn’t understand why Ali’s family and Shadi’s family were no longer close. I get that Shadi cut Ali out of her life and Zahra and Shadi had a break, but Ali/Zahra’s family still care for Shadi and she for them, so what happened between the parents? It seems that the death of a child would draw the friends out and make them protective, not push them to being aloof. It seemed off to me and major plot hole.
As I mentioned above: kissing, smoking, drugs, hooking up, referencing condoms, cosmo headlines, self harming, grief, death, alcohol.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t think even high school could do this as a book club selection, because you really want to ship Shadi and Ali. If you had like an MSA book club then I think this would be a great choice. I would love to hear teens’/young adults’ thoughts about Shadi’s view of religion, her fathers approach, and how they view passing the deen on to their children. I think it offer great role-play scenarios in empathy and how you’d react in real life to finding your mother struggling, your best friend taking off her hijab and being so jealous of you, the bullying, the assumptions, understanding your father and where to assign the blame for such a traumatic event that claimed your brother’s life. There is so much to discuss, and I hope at some point I find the right forum to chat about this book and listen to other’s perspectives about it.