A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena

a-girl-like-that.jpgI got a bit too carried away with my library holds this year, requesting new releases. Usually I don’t get around to reading books until years after they’re published, and while it’s fun to read new books while everyone’s talking about them, I keep reading books that are less than amazing, just because they sounded good and I went ahead and got greedy with my holds.

A Girl Like That takes place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and opens at the site of a car crash. Two teenagers, Zarin and Porus, are found dead. The first two chapters are told from Porus and Zarin’s POVs, from some sort of limbo between death and the afterlife. The book then jumps back in time, and, through multiple POVs, pieces together the events leading up to the accident.

This book wasn’t for me. It’s the second YA novel I’ve read recently that uses first person narration with multiple narrators, and I’m startling to really hate it. It’s super confusing to keep track of who’s who, especially when the voices aren’t that distinct. In this case, I couldn’t figure out what some of the POV characters added to the story. It felt like I got a little bit of each teenager’s story, but never really got to know any of them. It seemed like each of these characters had their own story, but trying to tell all of those stories was too much for the book, so instead, I only got a taste.

This is not a light book, either. It explores a lot of heavy themes–abuse, rape, sexual assault, and mental illness, among others. I wanted to be invested in the characters, as they struggled with so much, but I found them all somewhat distant (again, I really think a lot of this has to do with the POVs). It was a tough read because of the subject matter, and for me, it wasn’t made easier by love for the characters.

I also found the ending somewhat abrupt and unearned. It felt like something tacked on in order to tie up all the loose ends. The revelations and resolution felt too neat, and came too quickly. Bhathena uses the same device to end the book as she does to begin it–Zarin and Porus narrating from an afterlife. For me, this brought the whole book down a notch. I couldn’t figure out what it added. It just felt odd and out of place, a plot device. Despite the tragic nature of the book, it almost felt like giving the characters a voice after death let them off the hook too easily. It lessened the emotional impact, for me. Perhaps that’s part of why I struggled to connect with the story.

As a portrait of modern teenage life, however, this book felt so authentic. I appreciated the setting–Saudi Arabia–a place about which I know very little. But I also appreciated that despite cultural differences, much of what happened to Zarin felt familiar. She deals with feeling alone and isolated among her peers and with an unstable and unsupportive home life. She struggles against cultural and familial expectations and stereotypes, and with the gap between reputation and reality. She dates around a lot even though she’s not really sure what she wants. From the gossip to the bullying to her experiences with boys–it all felt so relatable and universal. There was plenty about this book that was particular to the setting, but it was first and foremost a book about a teenage girl. It brought home the fact that teens go through versions of the same thing wherever they are.

This novel explores issues of race, religion and class, and again, it felt both specific to the place and universal at the same time. Zarin and her family are from India, as is a boy she befriends, Porus. She dates several Muslim boys from Saudi Arabia. The various ways the people in this book interact (or don’t) because of race and religion and class is again a reminder that so much of what affects our daily lives affects the lives of people the world over, simply manifesting in different ways.

Overall, there was a lot to think about in this novel, but I couldn’t connect with the story. It’s likely to appeal to readers who are less picky about POV than me. It’s certainly worthwhile to read stories like this that take place outside of the US. I don’t regret reading it, but I don’t think it’ll stick with me, either.



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