Published by HarperTeen on October 16, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
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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.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
As a fan of Tahereh Mafi’s writing but not of the genres she tends to write (dystopian, middle grade), I was ecstatic when I saw she was publishing a YA contemporary (well, contemporary-ish. it’s set in 2002). I’m so happy A Very Large Expanse of Sea exists. I think it fills a void for a type of story that hasn’t been told in YA literature, and I hope it finds a home with many readers.
I’m struggling to put together my thoughts on this book, mostly because it’s the kind of quiet story that sneaks up on you. A Very Large Expanse of Sea is very much a slice-of-life story, and in true Mafi fashion, is very romance-centric. It follows Shirin, a Muslim-American teen who has just moved to a new city and who is struggling to navigate a deeply Islamaphobic post-9/11 America.
Tahereh Mafi has made it pretty public that Shirin’s story is largely based on her own experiences as a teenager, and it’s clear in every word that Mafi poured her heart into this book. Shirin is filled with so much (justified) anger at the world around her, and she has detached herself almost entirely from other people so as not to get hurt. The microaggressions she endures on a daily basis are nothing short of exhausting, so the way she shuts herself off from the world makes perfect sense. Sadly, too, I think Shirin’s experience would be just as familiar to many Muslim American girls today as it would to Muslim American girls in 2002. She begins to channel some of that anger and energy into breakdancing, which she takes up along with her brother and his friends in this book. I almost wish breakdancing had been more present in the story. It was present, but it definitely took a backseat to the romance.
Which brings us to… the romance. Tahereh Mafi can write the hell out of falling in love, and that is definitely true in AVLEOS. About halfway through the book, I would say this becomes almost strictly a story about romance. However, I feel like we didn’t get to know Ocean as a character all that well, which left me wondering why, exactly, Shirin was falling in love with him so quickly. Because he felt a little two-dimensional, I wasn’t sold on the romance. There are some great discussions about white privilege in regards to Ocean, though, which I really appreciated and thought were necessary.
Overall, while I didn’t personally love the romance, A Very Large Expanse of Sea is such a valuable, heartbreaking, quietly powerful book that I’m really glad exists. I highly recommend you pick it up!
Have you read A Very Large Expanse of Sea? What’s your favorite book with a Muslim protagonist?