My mother moved to the US when she was seventeen and did her last year of high school on Long Island, which was why she thought she understood what it was like to grow up here, except our experiences and attitudes couldn’t be more different. She actually had two boys ask her to senior prom, and politely refused, because her faith forbade it, while I couldn’t even imagine having two different guys ask me out, much less saying no to both.
—That Thing We Call a Heart, by Sheba Karim
It’s the summer before Shabnam Qureshi heads off to college, and she’s not expecting a particularly good few months. She and her longtime best friend, Farah, have been on the outs for quite a while now—ever since Farah started wearing a hijab without talking to Shabnam about her decision first. Shabnam misses her so, so much, and she’s very aware that she bears at least half—and if she’s being honest, probably more—of the blame for their estrangement, but she’s not quite ready to reach out yet.
But then she meets Jamie.
And she falls in love for the first time.
This book! Pastry and poetry and friendship and family; trust and belief and betrayal and different forms of love. Pride and fear and anger and unfairness; personal history, family history, cultural history, political history, and how they all dovetail and intertwine. Interacting with people as people with thoughts and feelings and, yes, personal histories, versus interacting with people as a tourist, seeing them as experiments or as curiosities.
The characterization is tip-top, and every person—EVERY PERSON—in this book is three-dimensional and real. Ditto for the relationships between the characters. While Shabnam and Jamie’s relationship gets most of the spotlight, and her relationship with her parents is complex and nuanced and warm and beautiful, it’s Shabnam and Farah’s relationship that is at the heart of the book. Even though their friendship is fractured, even though there is hurt on both sides, there’s an unwavering trust there—and when it comes down to it, they know each other and they believe each other, no pause, no doubt, no question.
We see Shabnam deal with being the One In The Room, feeling pressured to please a favorite teacher by sharing her family history in re: Partition—which she navigates by making a story up, rather than explaining that it’s not something that the family talks about BECAUSE it’s too painful. We hear Farah explain the daily weight of her choice to start wearing a hijab—to wear a visible indicator of her faith, a faith that so many people make assumptions about and are prejudiced against:
“...Par example, if Qureshi is rude to a sales clerk, that sales clerk is going to think, ‘That girl is such a bitch.’ But if I’m rude to a sales clerk, she’ll think, ‘That Muslim girl is such a bitch.’”
And Karim shows how these two friends support and understand each others’ decisions and choices—in some cases, after a cooling-off period—even though they respond so very, very differently to almost any given situation:
“But you’re not allowed to.
“Who says? The Man? Are you going to fight the Man, or are you going to let him step on your face?”
“Uh . . . neither?”
She laughed. “Well, I’ll fight for both of us then. Principal Stone better brace himself.”
It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s meaty while still feeling light.
I loved it, and if you’re a fan of contemporary YA, you will, too.
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.