A young adult Islamic fiction romance novel, yes its a genre, albeit small one. I braced myself for stereotypes, cheesiness, over simplifications, sweeping condemnation, and preachy reprimands. They never came. I think this book is different, because from what I felt while reading it, and from what I’ve read the author say, this book is written for us: Muslim females, raised in the west, devout, strong, involved, and vulnerable. It isn’t trying to convince anyone of Islam, or prove our place in America. It isn’t trying to justify relationships or make us hide in our houses, rather it is taking us up to the line, showing us our strengths and weaknesses, and leaving us there to think. In 282 pages, I saw myself crystal clear in the protagonist, the vilifying community, the determined best friend, and the steady parent. It is easy to judge, but this book gets the nuances, the temptation, the justification, the internal battles, and it does it all without resorting to extremes that would make it inappropriate for upper middle and high schoolers. Yay!
Sarah Ali has grown up in small town Wickley, Pennsylvania, her whole life. Her dad owns the local hangout, she is well known and well liked ,and very involved at school and in the masjid that her father helped start. She has a best friend who is Muslim and although her mother has passed away, her home life with her dad and older brother is solid and supportive. Senior year, however, is where the book takes place, and with Islamaphobes protesting and a new boy, Jason, in town coming to her rescue, the stage is set for her to have to decide how much their “friendship” crosses her internal boundaries of right and wrong, and when feelings are on the table, what choices she will make.
Throughout the book, there are numerous supporting characters that have their own roles in shining light on the situation from the outside and adding context to the world that Sarah lives in. But this is ultimately Sarah’s story, told from her perspective, and the internal conflicts are believable because they are hers, the reader can see a mile a way what is going on and what will happen, but to see it unfold within her is at times a little naive, but considering her age, plausible. It is her denial and acceptance of the situation at hand and what her role and hopes are that make the story very hard to put down.
The book in many ways is subtle, I don’t want to give to much of the plot away because it is obvious, it is a love story between two teenagers that can’t have a future based on the fact that she is Muslim and not willing to compromise that. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real feelings involved and real consequences to the choices that are made. Throw in the gossip mongers at the masjid, an older brother who is concerned, an ever patient father, and a handful of others and the book feels incredibly real.
WHY I LIKE IT:
Things are never black and white in real life, nor does reality prevent emotions and desires from breaking out. There is no shaming in their tale (other than by the judgemental aunties), but there are consequences that are also given their time and spotlight. From a parenting perspective it shows how a few questionable decisions can really get you in a heap of trouble and heartache, even if on the outside you can argue you did nothing wrong. Even in the book Sarah remarks that they didn’t do anything, but yet, they did so much, this understanding is really powerful, and so needed for the teenage demographic. The book does not celebrate Sarah and Jason’s relationship, although I must admit I did kind of cheer for them at some points (I know, haram). It shows that they are good people, but that there is a bigger picture. It also shows there is life and hope, and forgiveness after, in the healing.
I love that Sarah’s dad is awesome and that his ultimate weapon is dua. Not the stereotypical immigrant father trope, he is awesome. I also love that Sarah’s best friend, Jasmine, is a person of color, so diversity gets a bit of a shout out. The masjid politics is spot on, and the hypocritical aunties are as annoying in the book as they are in real life. Yes, there are times where the dialogue is a little syrupy and long-winded, but overall, this book is calm and reflective and so, so important for high school and college girls to read.
Islam is the religion practiced, from praying, to how they talk, to how they dress, the subtlties there are brilliant as well. You can tell the author is Muslim because it is natural and real, not researched and blotched. The message is ultimately that Allah knows all, and that we do things for His sake alone.
Truly the most Jason and Sarah do is hold hands, but the masjid ladies constrew that they do a lot more, and that Sarah ends up pregnant and gets an abortion. All untrue, but this revelation, that this is the gossip going around, is explored at the end of the book.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Oh how great would this book be as a book club for high school or even college age girls. But, alas I’m not involved in anything like that so I will have to just recommend this book to anyone that meets that criteria looking for a good book.
Having said that, part of me really thinks this book doesn’t need to be discussed. Saints and Misfits was a book that needs to be read and discussed with our youth, this book, I kind of like it to stir and fester within each reader. The lessons are there, and are clear, and some days I could see a girl really feeling one way and switching another. Like the father in the book, our kids, inshaAllah, have been taught right and wrong, we have to see what they do when tested. And this book can really speak to them, and offer them a bit of conciousness when faced with a seemingly small decision that could have big consequences. This book will stay with a reader, and that’s a good thing. I just don’t know if it will manifest the same with everyone, and I think that is a great thing.
Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fraVJZI1xNU