In this novel, a new international student at a commuter college in Ohio ignites questions of racism, nationalism, and history for a small town.
Fresh from the Paris suburbs, Azza Amari arrives at Northwestern Ohio State College wearing a hijab and holding a bag containing $97,872. “It is my out-of-state tuition, yes?” she responds to the registrar’s shock. The Tunisian-born refugee has already bought into a vision of the classic American college experience. But instead of offering a dorm, programs, and mixers, the small commuter college in Fremont struggles to accommodate her—eventually renting a cheap motel room and having the assistant registrar’s teenage son, Kip Beckelhymer, drive her around in his blue hatchback. Azza becomes intrigued by Kip’s love of history, in particular his obsession with a missing artifact from the local museum: a 19th-century plaster of Paris European pear. Azza agrees to help him and his friend Ryan Langham on their treasure hunts if the boys teach her how to drive. As the unlikely friendship develops, Azza learns more about Kip’s failed romance while the boys have their eyes opened to Islam and the world outside Fremont. Meanwhile, others in the town begin to close ranks, and dangerous clouds of racism and nationalism settle over the campus. Womack (Playing the Angel, 2013) has created a fun, fish-out-of-water tale with heavy implications about today’s world. He has carefully drawn, realistic small-town figures—thanks to sharp dialogue from Kip and Ry especially—to show how quickly open minds can close, building to an emotional and incensing conclusion. Azza’s overly polite, quizzical nature provides plenty of bright, comedic moments, but her characterization overall is perplexing. Her utter naiveté about bank accounts and universities seems to reinforce stereotypes rather than undo them. It would make more sense for Azza to be from a tiny, isolated village rather than the mean streets of a global, Western city—and the whole story would greatly benefit from its central figure being worldlier.
Despite featuring an outsider who’s a bit too removed, this book delivers a fast-paced, energetic tale resonating with today’s most troubling and important issues.