This 157 page young adult book is translated from Arabic and while at times the story seems intentionally choppy, at other times it seems that the translation is making it more jarring than it needs to be. I found the book interesting and powerful, in much the way a short story can be, but the length was awkward, as it was too long for a short story, and not long enough to really read as a novel with detail and depth and connection. I love the growth and retaking of control that the protagonist embodies and I absolutely love the ending being left intentionally unresolved. There is no mention of religion in this story set in Lebanon, until nearly the end when it states that she is Muslim. I wonder if the translation took out some of the ‘Salams’ and ‘inshaAllahs’ that would have clarified it a bit even if prayer, or the athan or any outward signs of being a Muslim are clearly absent. The book is probably fine for ages 13 and up.
Faten is essentially sold in to servitude by her family. Her family lives in a village outside Beirut and when money gets tight she is forced to go and work as a house keeper/maid for the Zein family. Once a month Faten’s father comes and collects her salary showing little to know affection for the eldest of his children. The small Zein family has two daughters and lives in a flat. While the girls are in school, Faten cooks and cleans and dreams of being a nurse. The family is not particularly cruel to Faten, they often refer to her simply as ‘girl,’ but they are not particularly kind to her either. The highlight of Faten’s day is watching a young man across the street that drives a dark blue car, come home, study, and play piano. On occasion she catches his eye, so he knows she exists, but the two know nothing about one another. On Faten’s 17th birthday she decides she is going to gift her self something, and writes a letter to the blond man across the street. She has her only friend in Beirut, Rosalynn, a much older house servant in the apartment downstairs from Sierra Leon, deliver the letter which asks the boy to meet her so that she might seek his help in a very important manner.
When Faten and Marwan meet, Faten asks him to obtain information about how she might study nursing and change her future. The two secretly meet with Rosalynn’s help on Sunday’s, Faten’s one day off. Faten borrows May’s books to study as she learns what exams she must take to make her dream a reality. Marwan helps her with questions she needs assistance with and Faten and Marwan become close friends, with both feeling some attraction for one another just beneath the surface. One day however, they are discovered by a friend of Mrs. Zein at a beach side cafe, drinking coffee and Faten is forbidden from leaving the apartment as a result. With the oldest girl, May, married now, and nothing to look forward to on her days off, Faten dives in to her studies and is more determined than ever to pass her exams.
To even take the multiple day exam requires a few lies, a few favors, and the willingness to take a huge risk. When the Zein’s find out she is let go, and now must face her parents back in the village. With the help of her childhood friend, Faten clings to hope, confidence in her ability, and determination to pave her own way on her own terms.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that while Faten is the victim of cruel parents, and an unfortunate circumstance, she rises up and fights for control. I love that she has feelings for Marwan, but that they don’t overshadow her future goals, nor does she become overly dependent on him. I really love her strength in handling the situation with him when it is good, when it is tested, and when she has to walk away. There are elements of it being a love story, but that is just one thread of the book, her charting her own path is much more the central story line. I wish her religion and his religion would have come to the surface more, and sooner. Lebanon is a diverse place and just saying they were of two different faiths could have provided a lot of insight and fleshing out of the culture and the dynamics the two would have faced. The classism is a bit obvious, but even when that is explored it provides a better understanding to the characters and to the arc they are moving on. I like that her childhood friend and family are so loving and that her mom is not completely written off as a passive flat character. Overall, I like the story and the book, set in the 80’s it really could have gone a lot of ways, but it held close to the theme and provided enough side details that it felt grounded, believable and ultimately was enjoyable to read.
When May is entertaining suitors there is some ogling that young kids might question. There is a lot of lying and deception and the possible romance between Faten and Marwan that in the text is pretty clean, but there is some hand holding if memory serves and implied desire for the friendship to be more.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
The book offers a lot in terms of classism and forced labor to be discussed and the cliffhanger ending between Marwan and Faten would allow the readers to decide if they could be together despite their different faiths, economic status and families, or not. I probably wouldn’t do it as a book club, but if I were a high school teacher, I might offer some sort of extra credit assignment involving the book, as the ending really lends itself to the reader projecting the characters’ futures based on their own perspectives which would be fascinating to hear.