Published by HarperTeen on October 16, 2018
Genres: Bullying, Contemporary, Social Issues, Young Adult
Pages: 320 •Format: E-Book •Source: Overdrive
It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.
Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.
But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.
Clearly I am late to the Tahereh Mafi party, as A Very Large Expanse of Sea is the first book by her I’ve read, despite her popular dystopian and middle grade series. I honestly had not heard much about her first contemporary YA novel and decided to check it out on a whim when browsing my library’s Overdrive selection and seeing it was available, as I wanted a shorter contemporary novel to read in conjunction with my long, time consuming TOG reread. What I didn’t expect to find was a story that would so viscerally remind me of what it felt like to be a teenager.
Set in 2002, the story follows Shirin, a Muslim-American girl who must deal with the racist climate of a post 9/11 America, exacerbated by the fact that she wears a hijab which serves as a target for racism and bullying both in high school and within the larger community. Shirin herself is tough as nails and has understandably developed a very jaded attitude from the way she’s been treated, and a large part of the story is her learning (painfully, painfully slowly) how to let her guard down with a character who comes from such a vastly different background than her.
While there is definitely a romantic arc that moves the novel along, I found the story to be about so much more than just a romance. It’s about the horrors and dehumanization and danger of stereotyping and racism, while also not defining Shirin and her family’s struggles by them either- they are still a tight knit group with other interests and priorities (like break dancing, family meals, translating Persian poetry…) despite the constant stress hanging over their heads every day of being the “outsiders” in their predominantly white community. I loved how this story showed a balance of opinions as well- from the outright racist jerks to the characters who really, truly care for Shirin. I also liked how even the well meaning characters weren’t perfect, and Shirin did have to struggle with the options of educating them vs. not wanting to be responsible for correcting their misconceptions, which is a huge struggle today. I also appreciated how the story was just not about non-minority characters struggling with bridging the gaps of friendship and relationships with those of different backgrounds, but also Shirin herself having to break down her own defenses that were so deeply rooted within her regarding befriending or being romantically involved with someone from a different background than her (out of self-preservation, but also out of fear and anxiety). While I did at times get frustrated reading about Shirin and Ocean’s poor communication choices or stubbornness, it also felt very authentic for two teenagers in the situation that they were in.
While this novel packs an emotional punch on many levels (and gets very deep despite its shorter length- things get WAY out of control by the end of the novel) what resonated the most with me was Mafi’s ability to capture so many of those raw, early 2000s teenage emotions and situations so clearly and in a way that will take you back to that time yourself. The thrill of getting an AIM from a classmate, the rush of talking on the phone under the covers to your friends or crush (or sometimes ALL of them at once thanks to the novelty of conference calling at that time) into the early hours of the night- I could picture being in Shirin’s shoes so clearly and all of the racing emotions that went with high school at the precipice of a new technological age. Shirin and Ocean’s feelings also felt so raw and real and rather than scoffing at them (which sometimes I think is easy to do for older readers reading YA) it felt so believable and emotional- even if you’re no longer the age of the characters in the book, you can so clearly remember how life changing those feelings felt at that time.
Though it was a shorter novel, it also manages to paint a full picture of Shirin’s family life which I think is so important in YA because at the high school age your siblings and parents are so influential in your life, choices, opportunities, etc. I liked how well balanced Shirin’s parents were- as immigrants with their own intense stories they had little sympathy for her high school dramas, but that didn’t make them neglectful or uncaring- they still clearly loved their children and made it a point to sit down as a family every night, cook together, etc. I loved the scene where Ocean comes over and they are so excited to showcase their culture and cooking to one of Shirin’s friends regardless of his background, and it was a really sweet scene that showed that her parent’s were fleshed out characters and not just their to stop her dating life or implement strict rules.
Another powerful part of this story is that Shirin is a very open narrator who’s not afraid to voice her perspective, whether to the readers or to other characters. Whether it’s calling out a teacher for putting her in an uncomfortable situation purely for shock value and treating her like an object or explaining that she wears a hijab because she enjoys it and it’s her body to choose what to do with, it was empowering to see a protagonist who can speak her mind and yet can still be wary and struggle with the weight of the problems of the world.
Overall: In just over 300 pages, A Very Large Expanse of Sea manages to build an emotional and evocative window into the past that shows there is still so much work to be done in the name of equality and diversity. However it also manages to portray the rush of teenage feelings, hope for change and strong familial bonds in a way that many novels double in size do not. I highly recommend this novel for those who want to read a contemporary story that truly engages the reader and doesn’t try to make the world into something it’s not, but also still leaves hope for a better future.