A Very Large Expanse of Sea
By: Tahereh Mafi
Publication Date: October 16th, 2018
It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.
Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.
But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.
Tahereh Mafi had been on my radar for a while (Her Shatter Me Series was a favorite of both mine and Em’s), but I hadn’t read much of her recent things. But I read the excerpt for AVLEOS when it first came out and was immediately hooked. An angry, sassy Muslim-American girl who listens to Radiohead under her hijab? YES PLEASE IMMEDIATELY. I think I might have preordered it that day.
The book felt all the more poignant for how semi-autobiographical it seemed. Part of the promo was a video of Tahereh pulling out her old high school breakdancing moves, so that part definitely seemed to be pulled from personal experience. But there was a lot of the examination of what it meant to be an outsider, to be so different, to deal with that difference and hate every single day, that felt intensely personal.
But this book balanced perfectly on edge–it showed all of the microaggressions Shirin faced and how much they wore her down, the hate that she stood up to on a daily basis, the ways that xenophobia and anti-Islamism worsened her life. But it was also a book that was in some ways really touching–Shirin goes through a lot of growth in this book, and part of that is learning to open herself up and love and be a good friend despite all of the stuff that’s thrown at her. And Tahereh perfectly balances the difficult parts with humor–Navid is always funny, little touches like Shirin’s awkwardness, and some squeal-worthy cuteness from the love story all help to make this book sweet.
Seriously, the love story is amazing. Ocean is in the running for Top Romantic Leads of YA Ever (he’s edging out Warner). I love the way he doesn’t give up on Shirin, how open he is about how much he cares about her, but also how he’s very respectful of her boundaries and her needs. I could definitely relate also to Shirin’s ‘wait, a guy actually likes me?’ bafflement, and her struggle between whether to let her guard down and let him in or keep him out. But the two of them are adorable, every step of the way, and although they struggle to be together they both actively work at it in a way that’s sweet, and authentic, and real.
But the book also has some truths in it, some ugly ones–I thought the scene where Shirin confronted her teacher about how he used her as a prop in his attempt to be seen as cool and progressive and hip to current events was EXCELLENT. It was also fascinating when she both acknowledged that her parents didn’t understand what she was going through at school, BUT also acknowledged the trauma they faced at the hands of the Iranian government as teens as the reason why. The other point the book made, and made well, was how the worst bullying she received wasn’t from her fellow classmates, but from adults/administration/people in charge who SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER but were happy to indulge in xenophobia and racism when confronted with a teen girl who was Other.
But, on the whole, this book perfectly balances this ugliness with this sweet storyline of first love, and how love allows Shirin and Ocean to prosper despite the hate that they receive. A friend compared AVLEOS to THUG in terms of impact and storyline, and I don’t think that’s far off.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.