Let me get this out of the way before anything. The hatred given to Muslims and Arabs, and the acceptance of the hate from authority figures which allow crimes against them to persist and grow, are absolutely disgusting. I encourage Muslim writers to speak up about discriminations they’ve endured. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be honest when one of the said works ends up a clunker.
Tahereh Mafi, after making quite a name for herself with her Shatter Me series, began diving into more subject matter in her specific territory as being a Muslim teenager after 9/11 with A Very Large Expanse of Sea. That book took place in 2002, and this one bounces between that year and 2003, though it’s not a sequel to that book (it’s understanding to assume otherwise, though. The same ‘A Novel’ scribble is pasted into the cover). That was Shirin and Ocean’s story, and this one is specifically Shadi’s, another Muslim American who has a crush on her ex-best friend Zahra’s older brother Ali. But she never went out with him before, feeling like it was a breach of their friendship, and after Zahra thought she was sleeping with Ali, they split like a ripped sheet of paper.
Things aren’t too better at home or school either. Classmates see her as a basket case, and her older sister Shayda and mother are in disarray about their really sick father who’s had to be way out of town for chemo that he has a low chance of surviving. She has no friends and she’s not close with anyone she may be able to turn to, and all of that has her in a depression she cannot fight back with.
The book has some stand-out ingredients. A pizza server named Javad who changed his name to Giovanni and pretended to be Italian when to Shadi it couldn’t be clearer he was Iranian. The characters often talk in Farsi (Persian language). Like Expanse of Sea, there are a few moments where Shadi takes the time to discuss with us how unfair the country and the world have been set up for her.
But that’s about it. Even at less than 250 pages, making it her smallest book yet (unless you count the Shatter Me novellas), it was really hard to power my way through An Emotion of Great Delight. Normally, I am all for books with broken characters who need to heal. But not when the brokenness is all there is to explore. There have been books Mafi has written with some senses of repetition, characters doubting themselves and thinking about love. This is like that, only it never moves on. The whole book is Shadi upset about what she cannot change and what she could change but doesn’t have it in her to try.
And wow, does Shadi suffer abuse in this book, not by passersby who try to demand she go back to where she came from, but the people who were once close to her. In fact, Shadi gives Shayda a hug to try and comfort her in a rough time, and then Shayda goes off on one of the most uncalled-for rants towards her little sister I have ever read, and what does Shadi do about it? Not enough, that’s for sure. Shadi just keeps swallowing her pride as people yell at her for things they think she did or is, and she doesn’t even try to dispute them. It’s easy to understand why she would be in a depression. The only thing is – who wants to read 248 pages of someone being unfairly tortured without fightback? It would’ve been easy to love this book had she tried to do…anything against it all. We’re told Shadi made a promise by her mother to not lash out at people to prevent them from proving they were right about what they expected of her, and that is definitely not an easy thing to request. But we could’ve had Shadi stewing in anger, and thinking about how much she wishes she could fight her enemies. Instead we get nonsensical forgiveness in her, thinking about how Shadi wishes she could make things right for the people mad at her, and how whatever reason they are lashing out, they must be in real pain. Ever heard of sadistic?
Plus, the book completely underutilizes a side character, Noah. He serves no purpose by the end of the book, and the conflict that keeps brewing between her and Zahra is never properly addressed, feeling like the book had 50 final pages erased, or Mafi wanted to give an ambiguous ending to let us imagine what would happen next, misreading the room in the process.
Tahereh Mafi has written some fascinating reads out there, but this entry is by far her most flat-out boring. Every book I’ve read from her has taken less than a week to finish, and this one took me just over two.