Over the last few years I have tried and failed to read various young adult books. I have found myself very frustrated by them. It probably doesn’t help that I am most certainly not in the age bracket that YA stories are aimed at. I’m at a different stage in my life so trying to form connections with the characters has proved difficult. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up Love From A To Z. I did so based on a review I heard on the podcast Reading Women and I am so happy that I did.
This book tells the story of the romance between Zayneb, a young muslim woman at high school in America and Adam, a bi-racial young muslim man attending college in London. Zayneb is experiencing episodes of Islamophobia at the hands of a teacher and has just been suspended from school. As a result she leaves to visit her aunt in Doha a little earlier than had been planned. Adam has just been diagnosed with MS, the disease that killed his mother, has dropped out of college and is heading home to his family in Doha.
Adam and Zayneb meet at the airport and briefly chat on the flight, thinking that they will never meet again. But fate steps in and they are brought together through Zayneb’s aunt and Adam’s father who both work at the international school in Doha. Each of these young people have their own issues that they are working through. Adam is trying to make sense of his diagnosis and where that leaves him in his life and how his future has now become unsure and unknown. He also has to tell his father who was devastated when his wife died. Zayneb is trying to reconcile her place in a world that views her with suspicion and trepidation. She is also trying to cope with the anger that she constantly feels and that she has trouble controlling and expressing. And while Adam and Zayneb are two very different people, they are connected by family tragedy, losing a mother and grandmother respectively, people they both loved deeply.
Now this is not your typical YA romance and that is one of the things I liked about it. The fact that both of the main characters are Muslims shapes their attitudes and how they behave in their romantic lives. While Zayneb would like to find a partner, she is not into dating for the sake of it – try before you buy is not for her. She doesn’t want to date if she thinks there is no future with the person she is interested in. This means that when she meets Adam and becomes interested in him, it is not all based on his looks (although he is cute). She really thinks about him, what he is like as a person and what kind of partner he might be. That is so refreshing let me tell you. And they aren’t throwing themselves at each other either. They observe the guidelines of their faith and don’t touch when together or spend time completely alone, always having either friends or family around them even if at a distance. Yes they feel physically attracted to one another but that is not the basis for their desire to be together. As I am not of the Islamic faith, it took some adjusting to following their interactions and on some occasions I had to remind myself why they weren’t doing what I had come to expect in YA novels. But that’s ok as the book was asking me to experience a known situation from a different perspective and I enjoyed that challenge.
Another aspect of the book that surprised and delighted me was how emotionally deep and sensitive it was. I found this particularly so for Adam and his story. He is portrayed as a calm, thoughtful, introspective and peaceful young man who explores the nature of his condition through reflection and via his relationships with various people. This is seen very early on in the book when he talks about the length of time it’s been since he has experienced a loving touch from people other than his family. It is a very poignant moment and so early in the story. I found it very easy to connect with him. When he leaves to return to Doha he is seemingly in the process of withdrawing from people in general, unsure how they will treat him once they know of his MS. But it’s his reaction to Zayneb, that deep connection he feels towards and with her, that starts to pull him back into meaningful interactions after a few stops and starts.
The undeniable way they are drawn to each other does not mean that it’s all plain sailing. There are difficult moments for them to navigate. Adam’s own reticence about starting a new relationship and exposing his prospective partner to the reality of his life with MS. Zayneb’s anger at the world and the situation she faces with her teacher. Someone else within their group of friends that is interested in Adam. The failure to really talk to one another about how they feel. They manage to get past these difficulties in ways that doesn’t feel trite and false. When they open up and communicate on a deeply truthful level, their prospective relationship takes hold and they start to look towards the future with more hope and less anger.
The author did a great job when constructing the narrative style. Zayneb and Adam’s story is told via the same journal they write in – The Marvels of Creation and Oddities of Existence. Now I am normally not one who takes to this method of storytelling but it works for this book. How? Rather than simply being a narrative device to convey plot, it actually sheds light on Adam and Zayneb’s personalities. Adam has more marvels in his journal – marvels being a positive so denoting more of a brighter outlook (even despite his MS). Zayneb has many more oddities – oddities being a negative which fits with her more pessimistic viewpoint. It allows a window into their thoughts and feelings as well as their perspectives on life, events and the possibility of love.
There was one part of the book that I had difficulty with in that I didn’t connect with as much as other parts and I think this is more me than the situation itself. Zayneb encounters many instances of confrontation regarding who she is and how she acts – a woman on a plane, people in the complex where she is living in Doha and a teacher at school. It is with the teacher and the way Zayneb and her friends expose him as an Islamophobe via online tracking of social media that, for me, seemed slightly off key to the rest of the book. It is so hard to explain but it felt more like a plot point that you would find in an average, run of the mill YA book which this one is most certainly not. I may be being unfair here with this but I would have liked to see Zayneb confront him without the need for that element and simply overcome him and his attitude via her own development as a person, rising above him in a thoughtful and measured way. But this is hardly a deal breaker. A minor quibble in what is an excellent book.
I’m sure you can tell by now that this story is one I feel you should read. It will challenge you in many ways and open your eyes to different perspectives, especially in how to tell a YA love story.
A highly recommended read.
Rating: 4 Stars
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)