I’m not going to lie, when I was at a recent United Library Services book talk I picked this beauty based on the cover alone. It’s pretty, and pink, and striking as heck. And with a title that alluded to social stigma and gender roles, I immediately skipped the blurb and went straight to reading. Get ready for rollercoaster my friends, because this is one hell of a read!
Title: A Girl Like That
Author: Tanaz Bhathena
Publication Date: March 19, 2018
Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, YA, Contemporary Fiction
Themes: Family, Friendship, Child Abuse, Bullying, Rape Culture
My Rating: 5/ 5
Sixteen-year-old Zarin Wadia is many things: a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a risk taker. She’s also the kind of girl that parents warn their kids to stay away from: a troublemaker whose many romances are the subject of endless gossip at school. You don’t want to get involved with a girl like that, they say. So how is it that eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia has only ever had eyes for her? And how did Zarin and Porus end up dead in a car together, crashed on the side of a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia? When the religious police arrive on the scene, everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is questioned. And as her story is pieced together, told through multiple perspectives, it becomes clear that she was far more than just a girl like that.
This beautifully written debut novel from Tanaz Bhathena reveals a rich and wonderful new world to readers. It tackles complicated issues of race, identity, class, and religion, and paints a portrait of teenage ambition, angst, and alienation that feels both inventive and universal.
Can you say heart breaking? Gut wrenching? Soul Crushing? Oooft! All of these apply!
A Girl Like That opens with an almost cinematic aerial overview of Zarin and Porus’ car wreck, their death, and how they perceive everyone’s reaction to their tragedy. It’s a jarring start, but I’ve always been partial to books that put the end at the beginning and then fill in the blanks from there. We meet Zarin, jaded and cynical, with a chip on her shoulder deeper than the Grand Canyon. She is fierce and fiery when those around her would prefer that she were meek and compliant – let’s just say she’s my kind of girl! And then we have Porus, who is kind and patient in a way that makes you love him from the very first moment you meet him. Their lives are picked apart from a multitude of perspectives until we finally have a more complete picture of Zarin and the people that shaped her life.
While this story is set in Jeddah many of the elements such as teen life, social media, and rape culture are universal. However, the added challenges of highly stigmatized gender roles and the presence of the religious police serve to amplify the injustices and challenges often encountered by young women. Jeddah itself is not written about in any sort of damning way – sure, there are abandoned warehouses, poverty is present in abundance, and there are some obvious social issues at play – but the city itself is written about with nostalgia and romanticism. The way in which the geography and architecture was described left me wanted to go for a drive down to the Corniche, walk the malls, watch the set over the ocean, and find some of that BBQ chicken!
I loved that while the story itself is modern, it has a timeless quality to it, almost like a modern Scarlet Letter. It’s important too, how social media is woven into the very fabric of the drama. It highlights the pervasive, inescapable quality that such tools have, and how they make the bullying and torment that young people experience extend into the home. For this fact alone, I think that so many parents out there would benefit from reading this sucker, because lets face it – school is nothing like it was twenty years ago! In a way, I was happy that Zarin didn’t have a smartphone or access to the internet because it limited her exposure to just how horrible her classmates were.
Now, lets talk about the boys in this book. They really bring to light the pervasive doubt standard that exists between boys and girls, often regardless of religion and culture – although those factors certain amplified Zarin’s situation. But more than gender inequality, the male characters in A Girl Like That bring to light not only the question of consent, but also the ways in which women who report assaults are treated. In light of current events, the #MeToo moment, and the negative way in which many of these reports are received A Girl Like That is the perfect antidote for cynics and naysayers.
And I must say, the writing is incredible! The way that every chapter jumps to a different character, but at an adjacent time, creates an effect kind of like a kaleidoscope with events constantly converging on one another. Bhathena’s short story background genuinely shines through as well, with each chapter operating as a self contained story that simultaneously fits in as another facet in the gem that is Zarin Wadia. Bit by bit we come learn why she is a prickly, taciturn, troublesome girl who smoke and rides around in cars with boys. We see how her reputation came to be, and why she works so hard to live up to the expectations that precede her, and yet simultaneously tries so hard to maintain dignity, virginity, and get good grades at school. By the end, instead of a hard and defiant rebel we are instead presented with fragile and broken girl seeking the comfort and acceptance she has never once been afforded.
A Girl Like That is like watching a beautiful train wreck in slow motion, the kind you can’t take your eyes away from, and that leaves you emotionally wrecked and in disbelief. Also, I loved it. I can absolutely understand why it was one of the most anticipated YA releases this spring, and I am blown away with the knowledge that this is Bhathena’s debut novel. Not only is this book timely and disturbingly relevant, it is deeply emotional and incredibly eye-opening. This book will be huge, it should be huge, and it is just the kind of thing that I would go out of my way to make sure was included in junior high and high school libraries.
Poignant and beautiful, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. The writing is exquisite, the story heartfelt, and the characters are so complete you van almost touch them. Buy it, borrow it, hit that button for download – this baby is an absolute must read!
Many thanks to United Library Services for providing a hard copy with no expectations of a review – it’s always nice to get a little book love!