Pub. Date: 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction YA, Romance
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
A Very Large Expanse of Sea, by Tahereh Mafi, takes us back to 2002, a year after 9/11. The turbulent times make life harder for Shirin, the new sixteen-year-old Muslim girl at school where she is regularly stereotyped. She’s built an armor around herself in the turbulence and from having to deal with her parents’ constantly moving to new places. She’s aloof to the world and keeps to herself. Then she meets a boy, named Ocean, who wants to get to know her. The latest Tahereh Mafi novel is a sweet romance that involves bringing Shirin out of her shell.
The book starts on the first day of school when one of Shirin’s teacher decides that her being a Persian Muslim means that she doesn’t belong in an advanced English class. This is a good point to make the reader see her reality and one reason for building that cool exterior. It shows some of what can come from more stereotyping in that school.
Now let’s talk about her romance. Shirin is a character who learns to let people in again. I like that her time at this high school, mostly thanks to Ocean, melts her cool exterior. He is persistent and really tries to get to know Shirin. He is sweet and well-meaning. I love that their romance begins with online chats and midnight texting and Ocean making a stand with her. I like seeing her melt and fall for him. I like seeing them fight for each other, if somewhat predictably, in light of certain revelations and against stereotyping jerks.
This is the first book, starring a Muslim character, that I’ve read where it didn’t get deep into the theology of Islam. She describes some parts of her culture to Ocean and mentions some things that she doesn’t have to explain to other Muslim friends. The main points about Islam that come up between her and the other characters are her hijab and Ramadan and the turbulent climate of Post-9/11 America. It’s also mentioned in narration that she doesn’t pray that much. Islam is part of her identity and the conflict, but the rest of the story focuses on her friendships, her relationship with Ocean, and breakdancing.
Shirin’s brother is a cool, protective brother. I love that he invites her to join his breakdancing crew, and she gets along well with his friends. I liked reading about her learning to crab walk, which I’m given to understand from this novel involves one’s elbows. She put in so much work, and it was great how it was an escape for her and also helped her socialize. I also like that it is involved in her relationship with Ocean but not in a conflicting way. It was refreshing to read breakdancing in a book.
Her brother also helps her at school and at home. He takes action when he finds out that she was attacked at school. He also gives valid excuses to their parents about her whereabouts so that she can go breakdancing or have a romantic moment with Ocean.
While I really enjoyed this book and loved the romance, I felt like a problem caused by one of Shirin’s teachers is resolved too quickly. It was one issue that was cleaned up quickly in the book. I think it would have been more complete for him to make an appearance one more time in the book to prove that he is learning or not as terrible as we think.
I want to spend a moment talking about the setting. I’ve been a little thrown to see historical-fiction books that are set in the early 2000s because I was a little kid at that time and because it’s kind of strange that it’s so long ago that it qualifies for historical fiction. However, this book doesn’t get too swamped in the difference between 2018 and 2002, which is mainly technology. The book otherwise feels like a contemporary novel.
This book is the first Tahereh Mafi novel that I’ve been able to get into and love. A Very Large Expanse of Sea makes me interested in trying other books she has written or, at least, her future books. Judging by other reviews online, I believe Tahereh Mafi fans and non-Tahereh Mafi fans will enjoy this book.