Review: A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Title: A Very Large Expanse of Sea
Author: Tahereh Mafi
Publisher: HarperTeen
Rating: 3/5 Stars
Hardcover, 320 Pages
Published October 2018

Summary: 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.

When I first heard that Tahereh Mafi was going to be doing a contemporary novel, I immediately added it to my TBR, because I already love her Shatter Me series so much, and I wanted to see what one of her contemporary stories would be like. I tried to snag an ARC at BookExpo this year but ended up having to run to another panel with not enough time, so I preordered this book instead, and once I got it in my hands, I was super excited to read it. So without further ado, let's get into my review!

As the summary explains, Shirin is a Muslim teenager living in a post-9/11 world, and she finds herself the subject of a lot of hate and discrimination. Starting another school, Shirin just wants to keep her head down and get through the next few years so she can move onto a better future, away from all of the racists and xenophobes that are constantly surrounding her on a daily basis. However, what Shirin doesn't expect at this new school is to find a new love of breakdancing, and also to find a boy who makes her heart pound in a way that nobody has ever made her feel before -- and that boy is the awkward, irresistible Ocean James. He expresses an interest in her that doesn't seem to be morbid curiosity or just roping her in to make a joke of her, and Shirin isn't quite sure how she's supposed to handle that.

I definitely enjoyed reading this book. I was listening to a podcast with Tahereh Mafi and she explained how a lot of her own experiences as a teenager in a post-9/11 world were tied into this book, both through general sentiments and even through particular scenes (janitor yelling across the quad, anyone?). She used to breakdance in high school too, just like Shirin does, so it made me smile as I was reading to see one of my writing idol's own thoughts and experiences so clearly tied into her novel. It added a whole new layer of depth to the story that made it all the more special for me as a longtime Mafi reader.

I really liked reading Shirin's character throughout the story as well. She was stubborn and headstrong, always speaking up for herself and not letting those trying to bully her get her down. I was cheering her on throughout the entire story, and some of the stuff that she said to other teachers really got a laugh out of me, such as when she curses at a teacher on the first day of school because he accuses her of not knowing English, even though she was born in the United States. Basically, she was just an awesome badass that I immediately fell in love with as a reader.

The only thing I wasn't crazy about with this book is actually something that has disappointed me in some of Mafi's previous books as well. There were a handful of scenes in the story -- really important scenes, mind you, not simple or random things -- that were totally brushed over or glossed over briefly. For example, Shirin's conversation with Ocean's coach. Or the talent show. Or a handful of others that I can't mention here without spoiling parts of the story for you. As a reader, I felt a bit frustrated because those seemed like crucial moments in the story that were summed up in a line or less. It reminded me a lot of what some of my writing professors used to tell me when I was really guilty of just doing brief summaries of major scenes like that -- sometimes, it's not enough to get a simple "here's what happened" sentence. Sometimes, the reader has to be taken into those moments. And to me, it felt like some of those moments that were brushed over were things that I really wanted to experience through Shirin's eyes, in the moment, instead of getting a one-line summation later. It got a bit frustrating at times. However, other than that, I really did enjoy reading this story. 

(Spoilers here! Skip to the next paragraph to avoid them.) The ending line of the book gave me a lot of hope and made me smile as I closed the book. I was actually listening to the B&N YA Podcast when they interviewed Tahereh, and she was explaining how she didn't want to include that line at all and instead wanted the reader to be left wondering what would happen to Shirin and Ocean, so the addition of that final line to tie things together while also keeping it intentionally ambiguous felt like a really nice touch to me, and reminded me of how talented Mafi is when it comes to playing with the emotions of her readers.

Overall, A Very Large Expanse of Sea is another one of Tahereh Mafi's books that touched me and made me eager for more. As the first contemporary Mafi novel I've ever read, I was really impressed and not at all sure why she was ever worried about diving into contemporary, because I think she definitely pulled it off well. While some parts of the story felt a bit rushed and incomplete to me, the heart of Shirin's story shone beautifully and I enjoyed reading about her stubborn nature and even about the terrible things she had to experience in a world so full of hate, especially during a difficult time period that I was too young to really remember. If you're looking for an emotional story that hooks you, A Very Large Expanse of Sea is definitely a good place to start.

1 comment

  1. Glad that this was mostly a win! It does suck that certain things felt rushed- that is frustrating. But it sounds like the story mostly made up for it! I skipped the spoiler section because I am hoping to read it soon! Great review :)


We want to hear what YOU have to say! Go ahead and share your thoughts and opinions below. :-) (We promise we don't bite!)