Janna Yusuf has had a long-time crush on a senior that she doesn’t have anything in common with—he’s a senior, white, and Christian; she’s a sophomore, brown, and, as she puts it, “the non-casual-dating kind” of Muslim. And so she’s been mostly content to crush on him from afar.
But then it turns out that he likes her, too.
She’s got more going on than school and family and her Jeremy-crush, though. She’s also dealing with the aftermath of an attempted rape by Farooq, one of the most respected—and supposedly devout—young members of her mosque. She’s experiencing shame, anger, fear, confusion—all while putting up with the perpetrator’s constant presence, with his fake piety, with his borderline stalking. She hasn’t told anyone about it, in large part because of the frustrating and unfair leap of logic that follows any sort of crime that happens within a marginalized community:
The 60 percent reason that I hold back has to do with something I’m 100 percent sure of: I can’t handle people thinking I come from a messed-up community. I’d rather close the hamper lid on that one.
And that’s such a perfect example of one of the big reasons that Saints and Misfits shines so bright: Janna’s story works on an individual, extremely personal level, but it—through her voice—also provides commentary and asks questions on a broader, more political level.
Sometimes that commentary and those questions are explicit and overt, as in that excerpt. But sometimes they’re more subtle and subtextual, as in the clashes that Janna has with her friend Sausun about whether or not Janna, as a survivor of sexual assault, has a responsibility to publicly confront Farooq. Readers will be able to read it for one level or both, but even if they’re reading it purely for story, it’ll be impossible for them to not at least start to think about some of these issues a little more deeply.
Beyond all that—as if that isn’t enough—it’s a stellar story about family and friendship. Every single relationship—even between secondary characters—is complex and nuanced. The portrayal of various long-term divorce-related family tensions is fantastic, as is the difference in how Janna and her older brother Muhammad react and interpret those tensions. Janna and Muhammad clash about some things, but still exhibit Sibling Solidarity in regards to others:
We’d agreed that this is the best setup for video chatting with Dad as he sometimes starts asking about Mom’s buying habits if he glimpses anything new in the apartment. I guess he’s careful about his child support payments being put to good use.
Perspective, and how our perspective is shaped by age and life experience and gender and every other facet of identity, is the common thread that runs through everything. Janna’s take on Flannery O’Connor and on Shakespeare is not only affected, but framed by who she is, just as her elderly friend Mr. Ram’s opposite take is affected and framed by who he is:
He thinks she’s depressing and joyless, killing characters suddenly just when you’re getting to know them. I say she’s a kick-ass monster killer, wreaking justice on her pages. And who gets handed the worst of it in a Flannery world? Monsters hiding behind saint masks.
Both of them back their interpretations up with concrete knowledge, and it’s not about either of them being ALL RIGHT or ALL WRONG. It’s about them sharing a mutual love of literature, and about being willing to share pieces of themselves in their discussions of it.
There’s so much more. The push-pull between Janna’s more secular father and devout mother, and how her father interprets Janna’s decision to wear a hijab as a statement about him, rather than a statement about her own feelings about her faith. Her relationship with her uncle—the imam at their mosque—and the outreach work they do together. A wide array of people with a wide array of relationships with their own personal faith, in general. Depictions of the racism and Islamophobia and sexism that Janna witnesses and experiences on a daily basis, ranging from microaggressions to the more bald-faced and deliberate. Trust and the social hierarchy of high school and bullying and the beginnings of friendships and the endings of friendships and on and on and on.
On the tip-top of everything else, it’s FUNNY. As much as Janna is dealing with, as hard as some of the issues are, there’s a constant undercurrent of humor that keeps the overall tone light:
And he actually smiles like, get this, a sheep. I want to shear him (does it hurt the sheep to be sheared? And if it doesn’t I don’t want to shear him), but I stay quiet, listening to his dastardly plan.
I loved this book so, so much. If you haven’t ordered it yet, do.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.