Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review: That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim

That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim
Series: Standalone
Published: May 9th, 2017
Publisher: HarperTeen
288 pages (eARC)
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Acquired this book: Via Edelweiss in exchange for honest consideration
Warning: This review contain marked spoilers
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Shabnam Qureshi is a funny, imaginative Pakistani-American teen attending a private school in suburban New Jersey. When her feisty best friend, Farah, starts wearing the headscarf without even consulting her, it begins to unravel their friendship. After hooking up with the most racist boy in school and telling a huge lie about a tragedy that happened to her family during the Partition of India in 1947, Shabnam is ready for high school to end. She faces a summer of boredom and regret, but she has a plan: Get through the summer. Get to college. Don’t look back. Begin anew.

Everything changes when she meets Jamie, who scores her a job at his aunt’s pie shack, and meets her there every afternoon. Shabnam begins to see Jamie and herself like the rose and the nightingale of classic Urdu poetry, which, according to her father, is the ultimate language of desire. Jamie finds Shabnam fascinating—her curls, her culture, her awkwardness. Shabnam finds herself falling in love, but Farah finds Jamie worrying.

With Farah’s help, Shabnam uncovers the truth about Jamie, about herself, and what really happened during Partition. As she rebuilds her friendship with Farah and grows closer to her parents, Shabnam learns powerful lessons about the importance of love, in all of its forms.

Featuring complex, Muslim-American characters who defy conventional stereotypes and set against a backdrop of Radiohead’s music and the evocative metaphors of Urdu poetry, THAT THING WE CALL A HEART is an honest, moving story of a young woman's explorations of first love, sexuality, desire, self-worth, her relationship with her parents, the value of friendship, and what it means to be true.


That Thing We Call a Heart can pretty much be summed up in two words: growing up. It’s a character-driven book with a sequence of events over the course of one summer, a lot of self-reflection, and little actual plot. These types of books can be hit or miss for me, but I really enjoyed this one.

Shabnam was a complex, believable character. She was an average girl - awkward, self-conscious at times, intelligent. Through most of the book, she’s incredibly self-centred; she’s aware of some of her faults, aware of the distance with her family and with her best friend, but she mostly just cares about herself, particularly her budding love life. Characters like her make me have that rare feeling of actually being a grown-up because the things they do and say drive me crazy. That being said, I appreciated how flawed she was, because it made her seem more real. I also appreciated the open and honest conversations (and inner monologue) dealing with things like religion, sex, desire, the ignorant and sometimes downright racist comments people make without realizing they’re being ignorant or racist, and natural things of a personal nature (for instance, Shabnam mentioned several times how much she sweated and she worried about BO, which is so rare and yet so refreshing, because honestly who hasn’t worried about that at some point?).

This was the first book I’ve read with a Muslim main character, and I enjoyed learning more about the religion, Pakistani culture, and bits of history. I also enjoyed learning about Urdu poetry, and I liked how it was something that connected Shabnam to her otherwise distant father (who was hilarious, by the way). I loved how the author worked in honest, natural conversations about religion and how Shabnam and Farah differed quite a bit in their thinking, especially when Farah started wearing hijab. This book had a great cast of side characters, from Shabnam’s parents to Farah to Jamie.

Speaking of Jamie...two spoilers ahead...

I never particularly liked Jamie. There was always something about him that made me wary, and as the story went on, I realized I had good reason to be wary. While I love a happily ever after and expect it in most contemporaries, I think the author made an interesting decision, and I’ll be curious to see how other readers feel about Jamie. I’m used to summer romances finding a way to work out, and was surprised when this one not only didn’t work out, but we discovered Jamie was a player who had a less-than-stellar track record with girls. As a romance junkie, I’m surprised by my own reaction to how the romance played out and the fact I actually appreciated it. Getting to see Shabnam heartbroken and working through it, realizing how selfish she’d been, and trying to make things right with Farah and her family made me like her even more. It’s also far more realistic than most YA contemporaries. We’re used to swoonworthy, mature boys, and while I’m a sucker for them in fiction, they’re extremely rare in real life. How things worked out - plus Jamie’s general personality and behaviour - was so much more realistic.  

It didn’t bother me that Shabnam and Jamie drank or that they and Farah smoked pot. Part of me even appreciated seeing it because some kids do it, and I don’t like to pretend they don’t (same with sex in YA - it happens!). However, what I was 100% not okay with was the fact Farah and Jamie both drove while high. Farah even said something to the effect of ‘I drive better when I’m high’. NOPE. Impaired driving is impaired driving, and I hate that it’s in a book, especially a YA book, as if it’s completely normal and okay. It pissed me off to the point I almost stopped reading. I get that some things happen in a book and it doesn’t mean the author necessarily condones it or agrees with it, but in this case - maybe because I’ve been in an accident with a drunk driver (a drunk driver hit us, and my toddler nephew was in the vehicle) and have driven with a person who was high and feared for my safety - it rubbed me the wrong way.
<end spoilers>

That Thing We Call a Heart is a story about love in its many forms. It’s about growing up, figuring things out, and trying to understand the world around you and your place in it. By the end of the book, I was impressed with and proud of Shabnam’s growth. She learned a lot of hard, painful lessons over the course of the summer, and she came out a better person for it. This is a funny, touching, realistic story, and I’d recommend it to fans of contemporary YA.

Have you read That Thing We Call a Heart? What did you think? If you haven't read it, do you plan to? Can you recommend any books with Muslim main characters?
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