Book Review: That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim

That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim cover

That Thing We Call a Heart
by Sheba Karim 
Goodreads | Amazon
Series: no
Published: May 9th 2017

That Thing We Call a Heart is the story of the summer after Shabnam Qureshi's graduation. She struggles with finding her place, shifting friendships, a new appreciation for poetry, and the appearance of a new guy.

Shabnam is sharp, flawed, and real.  She says and does things that she immediately regrets.  She doesn't always appreciate her parents.  She is funny and observant and looking to figure out how she fits into the world. She was a completely normal girl trying to juggle all these separate parts of her life sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Even when she wasn't making the best choices, I was right there with her.

This is a very different book than the other realistic contemporary (nonproblem) novels with a Muslim teen girl as the main character that I have read before. I appreciated those differences because it starts to scratch the surface of how many different types of lives and experiences Muslims have.  No group is a monochrome.

This is the first time that I have read a book about a Pakistani-American girl who is not religious. Islam frowns on many of the things that she does; such as making out with a guy and drinking. Her mother is a semi-practicing Muslim while her father is agnostic. If you are looking for a book about a teenage girl who has a secure and personal connection to Islam, this is not the book for you. She is a cultural, secular Muslim.  I can't say anything about the representation. Shabnam read to me as well developed like most other characters that I read about.

It’s easy when you’re climbing something. Don’t look down, or even too far ahead. Focus on where you are in that moment.

I wish that the Indian Partician had been talked about and explored more. I have done a bit of reading on it, and it was such a seismic event that I would have expected it to play more of a role in the book once it was a part of the narrative.

The character that I struggled with the most was Shabnam best friend, Farah. She is much more religious and feminist than Shabnam.  I think that Farah was meant to be someone cooler and stronger that Shabnam for her to look up to.  Someone to give Shabnam decent advice that she wouldn't follow but should. I didn't like her. It felt as if she didn't have much of a sense of humor and that even when she was trying to be funny, she was kind of mean-spirited. I could understand if there was an undercurrent of anger to her character but it didn't feel intentional.  I was also a bit confused by her practice of Islam as it seems as if she was picking an choosing what she did and did not have to follow.  Throughout the book, I didn't find myself wanting to be friends with her, and often I actively did not want to be friends with her. Maybe it has to do with my personal biases and what I expect from characters.

There were no all good and all evil characters in this book.  Like real life everyone was complicated and had their agendas and blind spots.  People could have terrible moments and still be good people or say something positive and not be good.  There were also backstories and quirks in personality that were only hinted at that enriched the book.  I wanted to know more about almost everyone.

In the end, I like the writing, and I was mostly willing to "go there" with the characters.  It isn't the most memorable book that I have read this year but neither did I want to throw it at something. 

From Goodreads:

Shabnam Qureshi is a funny, imaginative Pakistani-American teen attending a tony private school in suburban New Jersey. When her feisty best friend, Farah, starts wearing the headscarf without even consulting her, it begins to unravel their friendship. After telling a huge lie about a tragedy that happened to her family during the Partition of India in 1947, Shabnam is ready for high school to end. She faces a summer of boredom and regret, but she has a plan: Get through the summer. Get to college. Don’t look back. Begin anew.

Everything changes when she meets Jamie, who scores her a job at his aunt’s pie shack, and meets her there every afternoon. Shabnam begins to see Jamie and herself like the rose and the nightingale of classic Urdu poetry, which, according to her father, is the ultimate language of desire. Jamie finds Shabnam fascinating—her curls, her culture, her awkwardness. Shabnam finds herself falling in love, but Farah finds Jamie worrying. 

With Farah’s help, Shabnam uncovers the truth about Jamie, about herself, and what really happened during Partition. As she rebuilds her friendship with Farah and grows closer to her parents, Shabnam learns powerful lessons about the importance of love, in all of its forms.

Featuring complex, Muslim-American characters who defy conventional stereotypes and set against a backdrop of Radiohead’s music and the evocative metaphors of Urdu poetry, THAT THING WE CALL A HEART is a honest, moving story of a young woman's explorations of first love, sexuality, desire, self-worth, her relationship with her parents, the value of friendship, and what it means to be true.