A Very Large Expanse of Sea


Shirin is a 16-year-old American girl of Persian ancestry living in NYC in 2002, a year after the 9/11 attack. Her parents are loving, ambitious, good role models, if curiously uninterested in the day-to-day school lives of their two children (Shirin has a brother, Navid, who is a year older). Both Shirin and Navid seem to be regarded as physically gorgeous. Navid is outgoing and popular. Shirin has elected to wear the hijab, which has caused a whole lotta hostility toward her from classmates, strangers, etc. As a result, she’s constructed quite the hard shell around herself to avoid interacting unnecessarily with other people, and her classmates consider her mean and unapproachable. Although she feels her persona protects her from hurtful abuse, it also isolates her. She spends her free time watching “Matlock” on TV, following and mastering breakdancing with her brother and some of his friends, writing incessantly in her journal, and constructing fashionable outfits by remaking items bought in thrift stores. Her go-to-hell-I-don’t-give-a-damn persona and her beauty attract the fervid devotion of her high school’s premier jock, a basketball player named Ocean, who has his own personal problems and finds her to be an inspiration. The eventual outing of their relationship causes persecution toward both of them, but after she wows the student body via a breakdancing performance at a school talent show she becomes like royalty. Hey, everybody loves a winner.

This book is fantasy, but, as I said in a review of another book, there’s a place for fantasy literature in this hard-bitten old world. Things that just don’t ring true include the following: (1) Nobody in America is going to find a pair of jeans at a thrift store for 50 cents, no matter where you live; (2) Experienced high school teachers are not going to make the blatant mistakes that propel two significant plot points in this story; (3) As soon as you know Shirin carries her extremely personal journal with her and writes in it everywhere, you know someone’s going to get it and read it; and (4) No one obsessive about wearing the hijab is going to remove it in a school bathroom and spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get a little bit of icing from a thrown cinnamon roll out of it, thus exposing herself to having a photo taken and disseminated school-wide. I suppose I quibble, but these notes will ring false to readers otherwise looking to respect the story.

The hijab is almost a character in this book. Shirin says she does not wear it out of modesty. At one point she says she wears it as a form of armor, because it makes her feel less vulnerable. This, of course, is ironic because it actually makes her MORE of a target. She says she likes the way it allows her to control what others see/know of her. It sets her apart and makes her feel special (my words). The wearing of the hijab seems to be a cultural, fashion choice rather than a religious one, since other than observing Ramadan, she does not appear to be religious at all, even pointing out that she and her brother do not say their morning and evening prayers as her mother always exhorts them to do. Both her parents and a police office (following an harassment incident) suggest she stop wearing it. SO. I don’t feel the author makes much of a case for WHY Shirin continues to wear it, in the face of difficulties, other than that the girl is pigheaded and is going to do what she wants to do, and by George people better let her do it. And hey, in this great country of ours she CAN do it, although she cannot control other peoples’ reactions to it. Since the wearing of the hijab seems to be little more than, like, a fashion choice, I can’t say I’m sympathetic to the trouble that rains down on her head because of it.  Might be different if the author had made an impassioned political plea, I don’t know.

The very last few pages of this 310-page book bring some long-standing and long-winded complications to a neat close.

The reviews on the jacket cover of this book are effusive in their praise, applying the adjectives “beautiful,” “elegant,” “transcendent,” and “gorgeous,” among others. This is nonsense. A glance at the above photograph of reviewer tabs illuminates how the author felt it necessary to use incessant ugly language to get her points across. Really? Oh please. Shirin’s language is as bad as anyone else’s in the book.

And don’t ask me what the title of this book is supposed to refer to.

Don’t put this on your school library shelves.

Categories: Bullying, Controversial YA Topics, Dance, Diversity, Fantasy, Fashion, Immigrants, LGBTQIA, Muslim Culture, Navigating through High School, Offensive Language in YA Literature, Peer Relationships, Religion

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