Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Title: If You Could Be Mine
Author: Sara Farizan
Publisher: Algonquin
Release date: August 20th 2013
Pages: 256
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: BEA - I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Seventeen-year-old Sahar has been in love with her best friend, Nasrin, since they were six. They’ve shared stolen kisses and romantic promises. But Iran is a dangerous place for two girls in love—Sahar and Nasrin could be beaten, imprisoned, even executed if their relationship came to light.
So they carry on in secret—until Nasrin’s parents announce that they’ve arranged for her marriage. Nasrin tries to persuade Sahar that they can go on as they have been, only now with new comforts provided by the decent, well-to-do doctor Nasrin will marry. But Sahar dreams of loving Nasrin exclusively—and openly.
Then Sahar discovers what seems like the perfect solution. In Iran, homosexuality may be a crime, but to be a man trapped in a woman’s body is seen as nature’s mistake, and sex reassignment is legal and accessible. As a man, Sahar could be the one to marry Nasrin. Sahar will never be able to love the one she wants, in the body she wants to be loved in, without risking her life. Is saving her love worth sacrificing her true self?
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This novel had so much potential. A gay girl in Iran, a country where homosexuality is illegal, needing to decide whether or not to have sex reassignment surgery in order to be with her secret girlfriend, as being transsexual, unlike homosexual, is accepted and supported by the government? Such a unique and fascinating concept. And the topic really is interesting; it’s what kept me turning the pages. The execution, though, turned out not to be as great as I’d hoped, and I had a number of problems with the novel.

My main problem is the relationship between Sahar and Nasrin. I heard the author speak at BEA, and she said something about how, at its heart, If You Could Be Mine is a love story, and that’s precisely what was missing for me. The novel starts out with Nasrin’s engagement, and that is when their relationship starts to go sour. In order for me to have invested in their relationship, for me to feel for Sahar in this situation, I would’ve needed to know more about the time before this – Nasrin isn’t always the most likeable character, and I understand that this effect is intended, but in order for the reader to care about their relationship and understand why Sahar has feelings for Nasrin even when she is acting like an annoying, spoiled brat, we would’ve needed some more flashbacks to their past and how their relationship developed. Sadly, the way it is, I wasn’t emotionally invested in their relationship, meaning that I couldn’t relate to large parts of Sahar’s struggle. I also wish there would have been a deeper engagement with the actual issue at hand, what it would be like to live in Iran as a homosexual – it is never really addressed how Sahar would deal with being homosexual, even if she cannot have Nasrin.

Throughout the novel, I never quiet understood Sahar’s reasoning. When Nasrin’s parents
announce that they have found a husband for her, Sahar decides to have sex reassignment surgery so that she, instead of the man who has asked for Nasrin’s hand, will be able to marry Nasrin. However, she never explains to the reader (or herself) how exactly that would work – does she think that Nasrin’s parents would accept her, a transsexual-to-be, as Nasrin’s partner? Their obsession with all things relating class and status, as well as the treatment of Parveen, Sahar’s transsexual friend, makes this unlikely. SLIGHT SPOILER: For example, when Nasrin’s fiancée finds out about Sahar’s plan, she is devastated and says her plan will no longer work, which I didn’t understand – how did she expect to keep it a secret after the surgery? I found it especially confusing that Sahar never even asks Nasrin whether she would marry her if she were to get a sex change and just assumes that this plan would work. I understand that this is at least in part intentional, to show how naïve Sahar’s love for Nasrin has made her, but like I said, I wasn’t emotionally invested in their relationship, so their love did not seem strong enough to me to justify such decisions.

I always love books set in different cultures; I love how reading can let you explore parts of the world you’ve never been to. So when Sara Farizan talked about how she wrote this book in part to give American readers a deeper understanding of Iranian culture, to show that it is not a terrible place with rules that seem crazy to the Western mind, but also a place where normal people live normal lives, I was looking forward to reading about this culture. Sadly, this statement did not match up at all with the feeling I got from the novel. To me, the presentation of Iran’s culture seemed preachy, and written very much from a Western standpoint. Maybe the issue is that the author used too much telling and not enough showing – instead of showing us what it is like to live in this culture, she told us that “In Iran, bla bla bla.” That wording especially annoyed me because it is coming from a first-person narrator who has lived in Iran all her life – I feel like, if she were simply telling her story, instead of trying to explain this culture to a Western audience, this would’ve been integrated into the novel in a more subtle way. I would have preferred a “Let me tell you my story, which happens to be set in another culture” approach, instead of a “Let me explain to you my culture” one, if that makes any sense. I also thought it was strange what a negative view of Iran is conveyed, with one character needing to flee the country. I just found the whole cultural aspect of the novel disappointing.

One aspect I really liked, though, were the secondary characters. I enjoyed reading about Parveen, the transsexual who first inspires Sahar to contemplate sex reassignment surgery, and all the other characters she introduces Sahar to. I also liked the family aspect – Sahar’s mother died a long time ago, causing her father to fall into a deep depression, and I really liked the developments in their relationship. My favorite part was probably the story of Ali, Sahar’s gay cousin, who has become an important part of Iran’s underground culture. I wish we would’ve gotten to know more about him, and seen Sahar interact with this community more, as this could’ve let us see how Sahar deals with her sexuality asides from her love for Nasrin.

Despite my high hopes for the novel, If You Could Be Mine did not meet my expectations. I still commend the author for writing about an issue that has gotten so little attention, but it wasn’t explored enough for me to really like the book. The romance part of the novel didn’t work for me, and sadly, that turned out to be the main focus – I just would have preferred to see the issue of Sahar’s sexuality and homosexuality in Iran to be explored more, and I would have preferred a different way of presenting Iran’s culture. Still, I think the novel is worth reading, if just for the unique topic.


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