Rachel reviews If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

IfYouCouldBeMine

Young Adult author Sara Farizan adds a fresh and necessary story with her debut novel If You Could Be Mine. In Iran, female teenager Sahar has known from a young age that she wants to marry her best friend, Nasrin. But although her feelings are reciprocated, the two cannot marry because they are both girls. In their country, homosexuality is considered a crime, and death can be one of the many punishments. For a while, Sahar and Nasrin carry on their secret romance. And then Nasrin’s parents reveal that they have plans for their daughter to be married to a successful doctor. The girls are devastated, and Sahar tries frantically to find a way to stop the wedding. She learns that, although homosexuality is abhorred in Iran, being transgender is viewed as a correctable mistake, and the government allows sex reassignment surgery. Sahar isn’t transgender, but she wants to have a chance with Nasrin, so she seriously considers the surgery. She meets and befriends many transsexuals, some happy in their new bodies and some not. But she must ask herself if her decision is really the right path for her, and what kind of choices she should make.

If You Could Be Mine is a moving book, with complex characters and scenes; some wrenching, some beautiful. Sara Farizan provided an interesting glimpse of what it may be like to be gay or transsexual in Iran. There was an ever-present sense of fear and urgency that many homosexual Iranians must go through every day. There were a few things about the culture I hadn’t known before reading this book, so that made it an even more interesting read.

Like Farizan’s second novel Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel, this story has fascinating and memorable characters. Sahar is an interesting and conflicted protagonist. There were moments where I felt she was jumping into decisions too fast and naively, but given that she really had no prior experiences with homosexual and transsexual people, it was understandable. One of my favorite characters in If You Could Be Mine was Parveen, a male-to-female transsexual. She spoke seriously to Sahar about what changing her gender would entail, and if Sahar was doing it for the right reasons. She remained a supportive friend throughout the novel, and was open and honest about her experiences so she could help Sahar make the right decision. Parveen really deserves a novel of her own, she’s so well-developed and intriguing.

Sahar’s journey to be true to herself is emotional and thought-provoking. She must decide whether Nasrin would love her if she became a man, and if not, how to move on with her life. There were other subplots weaved with the main one: Sahar’s father coping with the loss of his wife, her gay cousin Ali making some humorous appearances, and the motives of Nasrin’s parents for their daughter’s upcoming wedding.

If You Could Be Mine is not a light read; it deals with heavy subject matters. There are no easy answers to the character’s predicaments. But the idea and plot are interesting additions to YA literature. This novel, especially with its amazing characters, will easily be remembered by readers.

Rachel reviews Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

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For fans of lesbian chick-lit, Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan is a funny, entertaining read, and delves into what it is like to be a lesbian of color.

Leila Azadi, a high school junior at Armstead Academy, is Iranian-American; the only one in her school, in fact. Most of her classmates are white, so Leila already feels out of place. She also knows she is gay, and is terrified to come out to her school and her conservative parents. So Leila decides to keep her sexuality a secret. All that changes when Armstead gets a new student; an attractive and enigmatic girl named Saskia. Leila begins to develop romantic feelings for her, and is thrilled when Saskia seems to like her back. She also gets to learn more about her classmates, who are not at all what they appear to be. As Leila grapples with coming out, she needs to learn who to trust…and who to avoid.

Tell Me Again is an easy read, as well as relevant to lesbians today. Throughout the book, Leila’s mixed feelings about being gay come to the surface. The story opens with her class reading The Color Purple, and how scared Leila is to say anything about the main character’s sexuality, for fear of drawing attention to herself. From that moment on, I found myself drawn in. The storyline of Leila coming to terms with her sexuality was gripping as I wondered what would happen next. There were plenty of subplots in the story; such as Leila’s sister Nahal going to medical school, her aloof friend Lisa Katz dealing with her brother’s death, and Leila working on the school’s upcoming play of Twelfth Night. All were nicely written by Sara Farizan.

The best parts about this book were the characters and the numerous surprises that came up. No spoilers here, but I really liked how the plot lines wrapped up. There were some moments where I laughed at a surprise, or when I got livid with a character. Nobody in Tell Me Again was clear-cut. They all had their secrets, motives, and hidden personalities. It was good to see such multi-layered characters, and that really made this book leave a deeper impression on me.

Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel is not a book readers should easily forget. The humor, combined with family, crushes, and coming out, makes Leila’s story fun and relatable. Sara Farizan put a new and interesting spin on teenage sexuality, and the result was a splendid read.

Danika reviews Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

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I have to start out by saying that I love this title (and the cover is nice as well). Every time I would glance over at the title I’d think Right? What a great encapsulation of the lesbian high school experience. (I also had a Facebook friend comment on my Goodreads post that I had finished this book by saying that she thought this was a link to an advice column and was disappointed that she was not actually going to read advice for how a crush should feel. Someone get on that.)

This is a lesbian young adult book about Leila, and Iranian-American girl who goes to a prestigious academy, and she is already fully aware of her own gayness, no one else knows it yet. She isn’t ready to come out to her traditional Iranian parents, but at least her closeted life is made easier by the fact that she’s grown up around most of her classmates and has no romantic interest in any of them. That is, until the new girl show up.

Most of this book I really enjoyed. Leila is a great main character, and because she’s already self-aware of being a lesbian, we great these great mental jokes about being the unknown queer in the group. Typical for YA, this is a really quick read, and even most of the side characters seem developed and interesting. Overall, it didn’t totally blow me away, but it got me to thinking that maybe I’m starting to have more difficulty getting into YA books as I’ve gotten older. I think most teenagers would enjoy this, and I am glad to see YA with a lesbian of colour main character.

Unfortunately, I did have one issue with this book, and it’s a spoiler. Highlight below to read.

It’s funny that one of the minor characters in this book aspires to be a vampire, because Saskia, the initial love interest, seems act like one. I saw the twist coming, but even still, she becomes an almost cartoonish villain. And that’s not entirely unrealistic–I don’t want to say that people like her don’t exist–but it seemed out of place when the rest of the story is more about subtle changes, from Lisa dealing with her grief to Leila finding the strength to slowly come out to a selection of trustworthy people. 

I also wondered if Saskia fit into the villainous bisexual trope. Part of Leila’s anger is because, at least in her view, Saskia cheated on her with a guy. (Her best friend, to be precise.) Saskia may identify as straight, but she certaintly plays the role of this villainous bisexual seductress (see the vampire analogy?) This might have been compensated for by Lisa identifying as bi, at least evening out the representation, but although the word “bi” is mentioned in the book, Lisa rejects it, saying she doesn’t want a label. (Which is fine for an individual to say, but bi representation in media has notoriously shied away from actually using the word “bisexual”.)

So I found that part disappointing, and it overshadowed the book for me.

Ashley reviews Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

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Sara Farizan’s second novel, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, is a genuinely sweet story of high school queerness. It can definitely be categorized as a “quick read” – but perhaps that is just because once I started reading, I never wanted to put it down.

The story revolves around Leila, an Iranian American teenager attending a small private high school in Massachusetts. Leila has been with the same group of classmates for as long as she can remember, so when a new girl named Saskia arrives with some international flair and a whole lot of personality, Leila can’t help but be attracted to her.

Leila discovered her attraction to women at summer camp, but she is definitely not ready to share this fact with anyone at home. When Saskia seems to be interested in her as more than just a friend, Leila is thrilled, but extremely nervous about what could happen if her classmates and her traditional Persian family discovered her secret. What follows is an absorbing story of Leila’s pursuit of love and acceptance, where she learns more about herself and her peers than she could have ever predicted.

I loved the plot and pacing of this book – it was accessible, quick, and much funnier than I expected it to be. Farizan also creates a fantastic cast of characters, developing the voices of various high schoolers to bring Leila’s story to life. Many of these characters are modeled on teenage archetypes – from the vampire techie who works backstage at the school play to the brilliant but hopelessly innocent faculty brat – but Farizan is skilled at manipulating their quirks in order to counter the stereotypes.

Leila (and the reader, by extension) really get to know the personalities behind the facades of those students who are on the fringes of the high school social scene. This sets up some great parallels between Leila’s hidden gayness and the other characters’ concealed true selves; Farizan’s story ultimately sends the message that we all have our secrets, that people are not always as they seem, and that sometimes you are rewarded when you decide to trust another person with your story.

In this way, Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel is as much about friendship as it is about crushes. In questioning what it means to truly be friends with someone, Farizan reveals how friends and allies often exist in unexpected places. One of my favorite examples is Leila’s adorable relationship with her English teacher, Ms. Taylor.

It was also really refreshing to see that Leila’s best friend is a guy. Although this was a complicated relationship at times, it was really nice to read a story that depicts a deep, sibling-like bond between a female and a male character that [spoiler alert] doesn’t end in romance. Even in the realm of queer YA novels, I’ve found that these bonds between male and female characters are sorely underrepresented.

Recently, I saw Farizan speak on the Tough Topics in YA Literature panel at the Boston Book Festival, where she explained that Leila was definitely more like she was as a teenager than the leading ladies of her debut novel, If You Could Be Mine. This became clear as I read Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel – Leila’s genuine voice and sarcastic humor read very naturally, and seem to reflect Farizan’s personality. I could not be more thankful that Farizan has decided to contribute her unique voice to young lesbian literature, and can’t wait to see what she writes next.

Danika reviews If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

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I was a little worried to start this book, actually. If You Could Be Mine is a book about two teenage girls in love in Iran. Homosexuality is illegal, but sex changes are legal and even partially funded by the government. The questions is, how far will Sahar go to be able to stay with Nasrin, the girl she’s been in love with since she was six?

If this looks like it could go badly, I would definitely agree. A book about a cisgender lesbian trying to get a sex change surgery as some kind of easy way out, or “in” to heterosexuality? It seemed like it would be hard to keep that from appearing transphobic. Personally, I think that this novel toes the line pretty well, though I would not try to defend it from this sort of criticism, especially from trans people. There are, however, trans characters in the book, and although they are not portrayed entirely positively (the “she has big hands” comments made me cringe), they do seem like real people. Additionally, I don’t think we’re really supposed to think that this is a good idea. I began to feel like you do watching a horror movie: “What are you doing?! Don’t go through that door!” You know that it’s a terrible idea, but you can’t help but keep watching. And you do sympathize with Sahar as well, because she is desperate and it’s an unfair situation. A later reveal makes this strategy seem all the more doomed, so I do think that we’re supposed to disagree with Sahar’s plan, and that it is deliberate.

With that out of the way, I was pleasantly surprised by this story. The writing is engaging, and both Sahar and Nasrin are interesting characters. I wasn’t sure how to feel about Nasrin, but I think she’s a realistic character. Also, that pattern on the front cover is also on the first page of each new chapter, and that combined with this book being slightly shorter and wider than usual, it makes for a nice design change. The arc of the story makes sense, and although it isn’t particularly fast-paced or packed with action, it is easy to read and compelling. Even the minor characters are intriguing and don’t just seem like cardboard background pieces. It is also a nice change to read a teen lesbian book set in Iran, when almost all lesbian books I’ve read have been white and set in North America or Europe, though of course it is hard to read about living in a country where being gay can still get you killed. I haven’t read a lot about Iran, so I can’t say how accurate the depiction is, but the author is the daughter of Iranian immigrants. Especially considering my reservations, I ended up really liking this book, and I would definitely recommend it if you’re interested.

Check out Jill’s review for another perspective!

Jill Guccini reviews If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

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Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine tells a story that I don’t think has ever been told in Young Adult fiction before, and it’s an important one. Set in contemporary Iran, it’s told from the point of view of 17-year-old Sahar, who has been in love with her best friend Nasrin for almost as long as she can remember. Luckily for her, Nasrin loves her back. Unluckily for both of them, homosexuality is illegal. But they can still share their love in secret, at least until the day Nasrin’s family announces she is to be betrothed–to a dude. While there’s nothing for Nasrin to do except go along with it, Sahar sinks into ever increasing despair, determined to stop the wedding at any cost. Her solution becomes this: transition to being a man, as gender reassignment surgery in Iran is, funnily enough, legal.

I was thrilled to receive an advanced copy of this book, as it’s been on my radar for a while. Yet I found myself slightly disappointed with certain things as I made my way through it. I found parts of it didactic, yet with books that introduce details about a culture to a (young) Western audience that more likely than not knows very little about it, I concede that basic explanations woven into the storytelling are necessary. I had also been nervous about how this would translate for the trans community, as it presents an excruciating conundrum: faking trans emotions seems offensive (obviously), but at the same time the fact that Nasrin would be pushed to such ideas necessarily highlights the painful absurdity of the entire situation. But in the trans community that Nasrin joins to get advice and encouragement in the novel, I found that Farizan was able to balance this well by showing trans folk who actually were living their truths, and the varying spectrum of pain that went along with that, whether their “condition” was “legally treatable” in their country or not.

I guess my main issues with the novel were personal annoyances with the main characters themselves. While I started the book in extreme sympathy for Sahar, as she declines further and further into her desperate plans, she becomes single minded in a completely irrational way. When people repeatedly warn her of all the negative outcomes or futility of her desires, she seems to shrug them all away, essentially saying over and over–I don’t care. I need to be with Nasrin. On the one hand, I question whether I even have a right to criticize Sahar. The most obvious reason being that as a privileged white girl from America, how can I look down on how Sahar reacts to the harsh reality of a world I can’t begin to truly understand? How obnoxious am I?

And for another thing, we all know that teenage love does indeed make you completely irrational and single minded. So in reality, there was probably a large amount of truth to Sahar’s stubbornness. It was just a truth I find annoying. Because the thing that bothered me most was that I didn’t find Nasrin likeable at all. She’s consistently portrayed as a shallow, selfish girl who yes, probably loves Sahar very deeply on the inside, but doesn’t have the conviction to show it as Sahar does. So while Nasrin drove herself to insanity over this girl, I couldn’t even truly sympathize with her motivation. Maybe if the novel was longer, and we had more of a chance to really get to know both Sahar and Nasrin through deeper character development, I would have felt completely differently about the whole thing.

Because at this point in YA, I expect more. Yes, while teenagers can be irrational, I really wanted more internal struggle within Sahar about what she was doing to herself, her body, her mind, in exchange for a girl who might not deserve it. I wanted more rage not just at the boy who was set to marry her beloved, but at the system as a whole, at the government, at the wider world who lets it happen. Farizan proved she could show grit in her descriptions of some other minor characters and the struggles they bore to survive. I wanted more of that grit for Sahar.

This all said: Would I still stock this book in a middle school or high school classroom? Would I put it on display at libraries? Absolutely. It still opens the door to discussions that need to be had, and can educate a lot of young people who have grown up in an It Gets Better North American psyche who may have no idea of the struggles other young people just like themselves endure in different parts of the globe. And after getting through all the frustrating middle parts, I actually did really like the ending.

If You Could Be Mine will be released in August 2013.