So I still have no idea what the title is supposed to mean; A Very Large Expanse of Sea. Maybe Mafi was referring to how a sea has so many innocents and predators, just like how high schooler Shirin has had to navigate around her American life this past year. It is 2002, a year after the September 11 attacks. I was three years old and as a result didn’t have a comprehension of how it affected the world until years later. But for Muslims in America, it was a paradox of sadistic racism and threats everywhere, especially for her wearing her scarf. But maybe the sea part refers to this guy named Ocean. He ends up accidentally bumping into her one day at school and has to tap her on the shoulder to apologize, because she had headphones hiding underneath her scarf, playing music in class. Ocean then begins to give some attention she doesn’t understand, and at first when she finally realizes Ocean might have a crush on her not because he’s fascinated with how different she is but because of how unique and stoic she is, Shirin at first is not sure whether to begin something that will probably be doomed from the start...but she feels she can give in.
Also, as a side story, Shirin’s older brother Navid takes her up on a talent show, and then the two of them, and Navid’s three senior-high friends form a breakdancing team and begin practicing after school hours. For starters, breakdancing is definitely a different angle, but this brings a tiny flaw I can’t ignore. A little early on in the book, when Shirin decides to start practicing, she says Navid wakes her up extra early to do a ten-mile run. Um, I was on my high school’s cross country team for two years, and the senior boys only had to do the equivalent of about four and a half miles during each race. And Shirin is neither senior nor a boy. But I saw a picture of Mafi today online practising a breakdance move, so maybe she’s speaking from experience and is capable of running half a marathon. Just something I had to point out.
Another thing about the breakdancing in this book is that doing some of these stunts would definitely take some strict exercise regimes, and they’re not really elaborated on. And for most of the first half, we don’t see many examples of hate pressed towards Shirin but instead we get a lot of Ocean trying to talk to Shirin and the awkward moments that transpire, which end up sounding suspiciously repetitive. But I’m happy to say the book gets better as it goes along. While I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone looking for an instantly suspenseful book or a reluctant reader, I would recommend it to someone who is looking for a book with honest teen talk and some surprising messages about what it means to walk around in a climate where a hijab could be interpreted as a dartboard.
I also got the impression Mafi went through some of these events too. She was a young teen during 9/11. And the way some of these events take place and how they’re briefly but concisely written and displayed helps with that theory, and Mafi was good at doing them. This is a book that’s relatively close, from what I’ve seen, to being an autobiography.
Now, Shirin, Ocean and Navid are really the only characters that get a chance to shine, but by the halfway point, it turns out that’s okay. All of a sudden, dozens of disasters strike Shirin. Namecalling was one thing but the other students end up doing some monstrous things to her. It’s written in the same way as her Shatter Me series, in that while the romance is up-close and personal, most other events are given very brief descriptions and then passed off, and while I wished there was more elaboration, there was enough in the descriptions for the sting to register, and at least compared to the other Tahereh Mafi book I recently read, Restore Me, this is quite an eventful book.
And then Mafi successfully gives us a few lessons I didn’t expect; that for Shirin, and I suspect her, if she removes her scarf because of the harassment, and a recommendation by a police officer after she was attacked in the street one day, then the people who are trying to get to her win. And that sometimes when people stay away from everybody and assume their evil, they aren’t treating others the way they want to be treated, and as hard as the world may be, that’s not fair. When these lessons end up in the book, I began caring a lot more about Shirin and Ocean’s relationship, especially when she then brings up a familiar yet always hard-hitting subject in the world of YA literature; that as teens some think they know the world and have met the “one”, but their life has barely begun.
One of the other Muslim books I read in 2018 was Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, which I gave one and a half stars to. I was debating a two or two and a half like this book, until its epilogue trashes almost everything the actual book was building up to. And this book almost does this too with another out-of-nowhere crusade. But I’m happy to say Mafi chose an angle that was not only realistic and sweet but swoon-worthy. I was very skeptical about this novel at first because of my history with Tahereh Mafi books and this being romance-heavy, but A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a worthy finished product of something light yet punchy at the same time.