Sweet yet angsty. Coming of age and coming out stories. A meet cute that’s…not so cute. Jewish holiday rom com. All the big, tender feels of young love. Non-stop cackling, except when you take a break to have a good cry. A prominently featured corgi. These are a few of my favorite things about Jake Arlow’s How to Excavate a Heart.
College student Shani Levine is determined to spend the holidays alone doing a winter internship at the Smithsonian—that means she’ll be away from her family, her mom specifically, which she feels guilty about while also desperately feeling the need to get away. There are a lot of complicated feelings around this stage of life, and Arlow’s character portrayals feel very authentic—the main characters are both first year college students figuring out what it means to be independent, to manage this in-between phase of life, caught between home and their new freedoms. This is also where Arlow nails the post-teenage angst humor.
We meet May in a rather abrupt manner—and this is not really a spoiler as it’s in the book’s synopsis and in the first chapter—with the front of Shani’s mom’s Subaru. May is also spending the holidays in DC with her dad, but not because she wants to be there. She’s having her own family issues, and being rudely greeted by the bumper of a car doesn’t exactly put her in the holiday spirit. May initially comes off a bit frosty, but of course we’ll eventually see those walls melted away.
The book is told in first person from Shani’s perspective, so you really get into her mindset. As she works out her feelings and makes self discoveries, you’re along for the ride. While this book is a holiday romcom, it’s also just as much a coming of age story, and we see a lot of Shani trying to figure out how and when to talk about her “new” life with her mom, when she doesn’t quite know how to come to terms with it herself. This includes keeping her first real relationship a secret, along with her sexuality.
(Spoilers and Trigger Warnings:) We kind of see this coming, like the Titanic about to hit the iceberg, as we see more snapshots of Shani’s first relationship. Each memory reveals more specific—or perhaps more accurate—details, as her relationship with May progresses. Our narrator is holding back so much in part because she’s just not had certain realizations herself about the abusive nature of her first relationship. Acknowledging these truths is a big turning point in the book, and it’s clear Shani can’t move forward with May until she’s come to terms with her own past. (End of Spoiler)
The supporting character cast gets major points, especially Beatrice (Aunt Bea) who is her own one woman comedy show, and Shani’s mentor at work who’s a few years older—the wise lesbian we all wish had been in our lives to dispense advice. And yes, the corgi (dogs absolutely count as characters). Overall, Arlow’s given us a sapphic holiday romcom that will excavate your own frozen little heart.
Trigger warnings: abuse, sexual assault