If You Could Be Mine: Review

August 20, 2014 2014, contemporary, Layla, Uncategorized 48 ★★★

If You Could Be Mine: ReviewIf You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan
Published by Algonquin Young Readers on August 20, 2013
Pages: 256 pages
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed
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In this stunning debut, a young Iranian American writer pulls back the curtain on one of the most hidden corners of a much-talked-about culture.

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 had before, 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?

I should start by saying that I’m glad that this book exists. There aren’t enough young adult novels that deal with LGBTQ subjects, and there certainly aren’t enough that deal with those subjects in the Middle East (or anywhere that isn’t contemporary America, to be honest). Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine – about a same-sex relationship between two Iranian teenagers – goes a long way towards filling the gap. I wish books like this had existed while I was growing up. That said, however, I really wanted more from this novel.

Here’s the premise: Sahar and her best friend, Nasrin, have been in love since they were children. In addition to this, Nasrin’s family functions as Sahar’s adoptive family: Sahar’s mother died when she was young, and her grieving father, though physically present, has pretty much been an absentee parent ever since. So, on top of loving Nasrin, Sahar is also really invested in being part of Nasrin’s family. When Nasrin becomes engaged to a (straight, male) doctor, my sympathies were totally with Sahar: she’s not only losing Nasrin but Nasrin’s family, too.

In response to this, Sahar concocts a plan. She decides to transition from female to male and have sex reassignment surgery – which is legal and funded by the Iranian government – so that she and Nasrin can be together.

What I liked about the book: first off, I liked that it wasn’t a coming-out story and thought the questions the story raised were interesting. (Whether they’re answered – or how they’re answered – is another thing entirely, though.) Additionally, Sahar and Nasrin’s relationship was well-written; I thought it was an emotionally accurate portrayal of what it can feel like to be in love when you’re a teenager, i.e., obsessive and all-encompassing. (Sahar states, for example, that she “could never leave Nasrin. Even if she’s leaving me, I can’t leave her.”)

I also liked the way that Sahar – as much as she mourns and rages against Nasrin’s decision to marry someone who isn’t her – ultimately comes to terms with that decision and doesn’t shy away from any of its complications. Nasrin is selfish and self-centered and classist and petty, but Sahar loves her, and I believe it; Sahar never pretends Nasrin is anything other than who she is, and Sahar loves her for it. View Spoiler »

What I didn’t like about the book: settle in, you all, because I have lots of feels about this.

First and foremost: I feel like the novel avoids engaging with the questions that it asks (i.e., what might it mean for Sahar to choose to transition?). The novel seems to feel that transitioning for Sahar is a mistake. Sahar is introduced to an Iranian trans community  but realizes quickly that she is fundamentally different from its members. Sahar’s friend Parveen, who is trans, discourages her, says, “I think this is a mistake for you, Sahar. You are not going to benefit from this the way a transsexual would. But you’ve made up your mind.” Finally, our only in-text example of a gay person (who isn’t trans) who transitions (albeit under coercion) is decidedly negative: Maryam is a heroin addict who “hates herself … and maybe everyone else in the world” and is “bitter, depressed, and stuck.” And so the novel’s perspective seems to be: people who aren’t trans shouldn’t transition. Ok.

Spoilery spoilers under the cut. What follows was one of my main problems with the book.

View Spoiler »

I had other quibbles with the book, too; although Parveen is a good friend to Sahar, I had some issues with the way the trans community is portrayed in the novel. Sahar, contemplating transitioning, worries that she will end up like some of the transmen she’s met – whom she characterizes as “sad little boys who got in way over their head,” because she doesn’t think they pass. Additionally, there’s a weird way in which Sahar assumes that biology is destiny; a transman who passes is “meant to be a boy” because he is “flat chested, but also has small hips,” but Sahar herself has a large chest and wide hips. She thinks, “The mirror seems pretty convinced that I was meant to be a girl.” And I know that this is Sahar’s perspective but this was still weird and gross to me; one person isn’t “meant to be” trans any more than another based on the width of their hips or the size of their chest.

Finally, on a technical level, I thought the novel was mixed. Farizan’s prose can be absolutely beautiful in places – I think she’s a wonderful writer and again want to emphasize how compelling I found Sahar’s narrative voice to be. On the other hand, though, I didn’t feel like the minor characters were as internally consistent – I kept on wondering if specific actions or speeches made sense with what we knew of a given character. (A good example of this: Sahar’s father, after five years of neglect, begs Sahar not to leave him and promises he’ll be a better father. Stuff has happened – her cousin’s been shot! Sahar’s obviously dealing with some serious stuff and starts missing school! – but I never felt like I understood why he was responding in the specific ways he responded. And his was not the only character whose actions I was surprised by and/or confused by. I’m looking at you, Nasrin’s mom.)

In closing: I liked the book, but I wanted more from it. However, I do think it’s a worthwhile read – I imagine that my response is going to be … fairly specific to how I roll as a reader – and your readerly experience may be totally different. Additionally, this is Farizan’s first book, and I do think it has a lot of potential; I would happily pick up something she writes in the future (and not just because I want more books for queer kids of Middle Eastern descent, although I DO). I think she’s a good writer, and I think the book raises many interesting questions – I’m just not sure it answers them particularly well.

Has anyone else read this? If so, what’d you think?

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48 Responses to “If You Could Be Mine: Review”

  1. Ava Jae

    This is another one I was interested in reading, though that bit about the portrayal of the trans community sounded kind of…not so good. :/ I think I’ll keep it in my TBR list, but you brought up some great points here. Thanks for the awesome review!
    Ava Jae recently posted…Vlog: Why Writers Must Read

    • Layla

      Hey hey. Check back in after you’ve read it?

      Yeah, I think the trans stuff in the novel is, eh, NOT GREAT. (I want another novel about being trans in Iran! but this is not that novel.)

      • Jannetta

        I read Every Day by David Levithan a couple weeks ago. It’s a “questioning” one. I really liked the idea of it. But didn’t end up liking where it went. It was a fun read, though! David Levithan is a great author to look into if you want to read LGBTQ
        I also read I Am J by Chris Beam in middle school. About a transgender teen. I loved it.

  2. Nikki Robinson

    I loved this book for two reasons. A) the subject matter was something I’d never read anything like before. I love reading books set in other cultures, and I don’t think anything could be more different from the culture in the US than this. Sure, there are similarities, but it’s so different. B) I got to meet Sara Farizan at a book fest last year. During her panel, she started crying when she was talking because this is her life. It was so moving to see her so passionate about what she is writing about. (Plus she told me good luck with my last year of nursing school while signing my book!)

    • Layla

      I’m really glad you loved this book. I am also glad that the book exists for some of those reasons – I’m glad when there’s representation of perspectives that aren’t strictly American or Western. And how cool that you were able to see Farizan at a book fest! She sounds like she was a wonderful speaker (and a nice person to boot).
      Layla recently posted…The Kiss of Deception: review

  3. Kristy Petree

    This book sounds great and, I agree, there needs to be more books like this. These individuals have it hard enough in my own country (U.S.) but I can’t even begin to imagine how they’re treated in other countries, especially the Middle-East.

    Will I read it? Probably not. Not because of the subject matter, but the fact that it sounds unresolved, undecided, and kind of unfinished (I skimmed the spoilers). Great review, though!

  4. Peyton

    Even though I can tell I’d probably have the same issues with this book as you I kind of want to read it. I think it’s great that more LGBTQ books in settings other than America is great, and I like that the concept is grounded in that culture instead of just being a coming-out story. I’m not really a fan of lesbians where one ends up with a man/is vain/is a terrible person, though. Hmm, I’m torn.
    Peyton recently posted…A Little Something Different: Review + Giveaway

    • Layla

      If you do decide to check it out, let me know what you think. I’d be curious to hear!! There are lots of things to like about this book, but I felt like something was missing in it for me. (I wanted more from it, and admittedly, my expectations were high.)

      YES, BAH to stories where one half of the couple is obviously totally awful and/or ends up with a dude at the end. (Not that bisexuality isn’t real, but it’s a trope that is overused. Although it didn’t bother me as much here as it does in some cases because it wasn’t some Kissing Jessica Stein b.s. – Nasrin isn’t in love with her husband; she’s trying to make her parents happy and is doing what seems most practical and safe to her.) Anyway. Nasrin is vain and kind of terrible so if you don’t like reading stories where one person moons over another person who is kinda awful … you may not enjoy.
      Layla recently posted…A Little Something Different: Review + Giveaway

  5. Christina R.

    LOVE how it’s a story about diversity that also deals with cultural diversity!

    It is also good to see maturity in a romance and character growth!

    Lovely review :)

  6. Wendy Darling

    I was very curious about this book, because as you said, we really need to see more of these types of stories, especially for YA. It’s disappointing to hear that the book seems to fall short in so many areas–the lack of follow through on some of the emotional issues, as well as the problematic representation of trans characters, would be points that bothered me, too. I don’t know too much about the transgender community, but even as a casual reader, that type of portrayal seems very stereotypical, and certainly not one that seems to educate/illuminate/endear/etc. in any way. Not that all fictional characters have to do such things, but with such an underrepresented section of our society, this seems like a missed opportunity.

    I really appreciate this review, however, because I can tell that this is not the book for me. So the search for a great f/f relationship goes on for this age category…

    • Layla

      Yeah, in some ways, I think the novel might have been better with either way more or much less focus on the trans community. This was just enough to make me feel like it wasn’t enough, and the story seems to be really very much more about Sahar’s relationship with Nasrin (the question of her transition ultimately just boils down to whether her relationship with Nasrin is worth it or not – it becomes something to talk about their relationship through, if that makes sense).

      I’m trying to think of f/f books for YA that I’ve read and liked. I remember Laura Goode’s Sister Mischief being okay, but I’d have to re-read it to say for sure.
      Layla recently posted…A Little Something Different: Review + Giveaway

        • Wendy Darling

          Oh yeah. I liked ADAPTATION and its sequel okay, particularly in the way the f/m/f triangle is dealt with and resolved, but there’s a spark missing with the writing in those books. I’ve heard lackluster things about ASH and her other book, so I still haven’t gotten around to reading my Kindle copy, even though the idea of a lesbian retelling of Cinderella sounds SO good. Someone should do a f/f retelling of SLEEPING BEAUTY.

          • Layla

            Is there maybe an f/f retelling of Sleeping Beauty in Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch? I haven’t read that in forever, so I don’t remember.

            I haven’t read the sequel to Adaptation yet. I was whelmed by the first book, so I haven’t given the second a shot yet. Worth it?

            I had SUCH high hopes for Ash. And haven’t read Huntress though I hear it’s supposed to be better (all of my friends tell me that it is). But there is just something about Lo’s books that hasn’t worked for me, and I don’t know what it is. I really like what they’re trying to do, but the execution never really works for me.
            Layla recently posted…A Little Something Different: Review + Giveaway

      • Wendy Darling

        My favorite YA book featuring a lesbian character is definitely THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST–have you read this, Layla? It’s gorgeously written, although it’s about one character and her self-discovery leading to her being placed in a de-gaying camp. I’d love to see a well-written f/f romance, or just characters in a book about something else entirely. I should actually see if Em Danforth’s working on anything, it’s been a couple of years since that book.

  7. Kate S. (@ExLibris_Kate)

    I read this book and found the peek into Iranian culture, specifically how it treats members of the LGBTQ community, to be fascinating. I do agree with a lot of what you said. The writing style was a bit inconsistent, although I kind of chalked it up to the fact that it was a debut. I thought that Sahar’s inability to make a decision for herself was consistent with the rest of her life. She didn’t seem as if she was able to make any big decisions for herself about anything, so I wasn’t really surprised that she backed down from her decision for surgery. It wasn’t a perfect book, but like you said, I’m glad it was written.
    Kate S. (@ExLibris_Kate) recently posted…Into The Dark by Alison Gaylin

    • Layla

      Yay, I’m glad you’ve also read it! I’m interested in seeing where her next book goes; it’s supposed to be out this October, and I’m curious to see what’s changed from her first book to her second.

      With regards to the writing style, yeah. I also thought things were inconsistent and maybe a bit rushed? There’s a lot of telling and not showing, and I think it might have been better as a longer book.

      Spoiler alert!

      I think I just wanted more from Sahar about the decision (like, I wanted her to sort of actively choose not to have surgery, and not just be forced into a decision by other people and a series of random events). I do think that you’re right in that this reflects maybe how her abilities to make a decision are constrained in general? ‘Cause that is … pretty consistent here.

      But she does decide, for example, to not go with her cousin to Turkey (and I really liked the way that played out in the novel). I wanted her decision about transitioning to be as clearly her own. Anyway. Thanks for your comment! :)
      Layla recently posted…If You Could Be Mine: Review

  8. Kim

    Oh, this is so frustrating. I love and adore that this is a queer book with a non-Western setting. But from your review I can tell that this just wouldn’t be for me. Contemporary is so hit or miss for me to begin with, but everything you’ve described about the trans* issues in this book are just one huge NO. It’s so incredibly appropriative.

    I also really can’t stand darker love stories. I think it’s sometimes worse for me when the MC *knows* that the love interest is self absorbed and terrible but still can’t stay away. I know that this happens in the real world all the time but it’s just not something I enjoy in my reading experience.

    Thanks for the review! It’s helpful to know that this is definitely not a Kim Book.

    • Layla

      I hear you. In some ways, I wish the book had either been longer or maybe not dealt with the trans* community at all. (Even though Sahar’s possible transition is in some ways the premise of the book, I don’t feel like it’s actually engaged with deeply. The book is much more about her relationship with Nasrin – and less about what it would mean for Sahar to transition.) And bleh, the transphobic stuff that’s from Sahar’s perspective really threw me – I know it’s from her perspective, but we’re also kind of not given a different perspective by the book itself, and I just wonder what it would be like to be a trans-identified teen and pick this up. (It’s a story that looks like it could be your story, but is actually not.)

      UGH oh god yes. It’s hard for me to remember that characters aren’t real people sometimes. Have you ever read Emma Donoghue’s Hood? My queer book club read it a few months back, and while it had been a favorite of mine as a baby!gay, I could NOT DEAL with how awful the MC’s girlfriend was to her. (The book, if you haven’t read it, features a MC whose partner has just died in a car accident, and the book is about her grieving for this relationship. But it’s a hard read because her grief is over someone who was terrible to her in so many ways.) Sorry. Rambly. But yes, not a Kim book, then.
      Layla recently posted…If You Could Be Mine: Review

  9. Nikki

    Oh this story sounds wonderful! So many lifestyles just in this one story that aren’t discussed nearly enough.

  10. Liv_The Absent Historian

    I had not actually heard of this book until you raised it here, but it definitely sounds like an interesting one. I think I would be willing to read this one and discover more because I do agree with you about this area being a niche genre in the YA world and literature in general.
    Hopefully the author will only go from strength to strength with future books!
    Liv_The Absent Historian recently posted…Waiting on Wednesday #2

    • Layla

      Oh, good! I’m glad you maybe found a new book to read. :) If you do choose to read it, let me know what you think? I do think that many of the issues the book addresses are important ones to raise – and I hope more books that touch upon the same topics (mainly LGBTQ issues in non-Western places) follow.

      And yes, this is her first book. Her second, Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel, is out this fall, I think. Fingers crossed!
      Layla recently posted…If You Could Be Mine: Review

    • Layla

      Yeah, I know that part of the reason I was disappointed by If You Could Be Mine is that I wanted a lot out of it. What in particular were your difficulties with the book?

      I like the portrayal of their relationship – in that I felt like I understood it – but I still thought it was awful and toxic for Sahar. Especially since that dynamic has been in play since they were SIX, holy smokes. That’s a long long time.
      Layla recently posted…If You Could Be Mine: Review

      • Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews

        I found the writing to be a little hesitant in many places. Like it was only poking at the surface and not really going in depth of the story.
        And Nasrin was a little too clueless – like she didn’t seem to understand that she and Sahar might not be able to see each other at all after the wedding – since only someone suspecting their relationship was more than just two women being friends would have meant the death penalty for both of them.
        And while I liked that Sahar was ready to take many chances to continue this relationship, it also seemed like she didn’t have any self preservation when it came to Nasrin :)
        Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews recently posted…Waiting on Wednesday #9 – The Beautiful Ashes

        • Layla

          Yeah, I kind of wonder if it would have been better as a longer book, maybe. I felt like that a lot about some of the minor characters, for sure.

          Nasrin is pretty clueless; she’s very used to getting what she wants, and Sahar is used to giving it to her, too, I think. (The scene where she’s out shopping for a wedding dress, and Sahar helps her fight her mom to get one that she actually wants, or where she has a *surprise!1!!* planned for Sahar and it’s something Sahar absolutely dreads. UGH do you know her at all, Nasrin?)
          Layla recently posted…If You Could Be Mine: Review

  11. Lily

    I’ve heard a few things about this book but this is the first real indepth look at the book. I love the issues this book tackles, LGBT in the middle east? Thats an amazing subject to tackle and really raise awareness here in NA but i find it kind of sad that you feel like the book didn’t want to answer some of the quesrions it asked. That being said, I still praise this book for bridging that huge gap it did. Lovely review!
    Lily recently posted…Ugly Love:Review

    • Layla

      Well, if you read it, do come back and let me know what you think. I’m really curious to hear how other folks felt about it. Farizan has another book coming out later this year, too, if you’re interested in reading books that combine a focus on LGBTQ issues with characters who are (in this case) Iranian or Iranian-American. (It’s called Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel.) I agree with you though – I think it’s great that the book deals with these issues at all, and I’m really glad that it exists. :)
      Layla recently posted…If You Could Be Mine: Review

  12. Hilary

    By the sound of it, this book is a valiant attempt at discussing LGBTQ issues. It’s too bad that there are some inconsistencies with both the characters and the trans community.
    Hilary recently posted…Shatter the Winner’s Curse

    • Layla

      It really, really is. The book tries to do a lot of work with regards to discussing LGBTQ issues in Iran from a teenager’s perspective – I almost wonder if it would have been better as a longer book. The narrator comes across pretty well, but I think with more space and time, some of the minor characters might have had room to grow, and the book might have been able to do more than focus on the relationship between Sahar and Nasrin. (I really wanted Parveen’s character to get more screen-time, if you will! And I spoke with some other friends who’d read If You Could Be Mine recently and they also wanted more of her!)
      Layla recently posted…If You Could Be Mine: Review

  13. kindlemom1

    I haven’t tried this either but I have seen some pretty good reviews for it even if it doesn’t sound like it is perfect. I am glad overall you liked it though.
    kindlemom1 recently posted…WoW Pick of the Week

    • Layla

      If you decide to try it, let me know what you think! I do think a lot of folks have liked it a bunch, and I think I’m very much in the minority for feeling like it was just ok. I do think that the book does a very good thing in asking that YA literature cover a range of experiences and identities, and I think it’s certainly worth a read!
      Layla recently posted…If You Could Be Mine: Review

  14. Johannah

    This sounds like a great story – maybe I’ll give it a try. Not really what I’d normally read because some of those subjects make me uncomfortable. I have no issues with same sex relationships (my boss is gay and he’s a great boss!). But I just have found myself withdrawing myself from the story if it starts to hint at going that direction. I own Ask The Passengers and I want to read it and I will. I think it will help me break away from what I normally read and expand my library. Thanks for the great review!
    Johannah recently posted…Piracy is a problem

    • Layla

      Hi, Johannah – if you give it a try, let me know what you think about it. I’d be curious to hear your feelings about the book, especially if this generally isn’t your cup of tea. I think Sahar is a really interesting narrator, and the book is, I think, more focused on the relationship between Sahar and Nasrin than it is on pretty much anything else (and the book is very much about the relationship from the get-go, so you should know quickly whether you like it or not). So give it a try? I’ve not read Ask the Passengers yet, so I’m going to add that to my to-read list. I think it’s wonderful that you’re trying to expand your library – it’s one of the reasons I like blogs so much. They introduce me to things I would never have thought to try (i.e., The Raven Boys or Shiver! Would never have picked either of those up without this blog in particular!).
      Layla recently posted…If You Could Be Mine: Review

      • Johannah

        I know! If it wasn’t for the blogging community I’d still be reading grocery store romance novels! Ha ha ha! I’ve expanded to Sci-fi, rated G romance novels, mysteries, and I’m sure there are more genres.
        Johannah recently posted…Piracy is a problem

        • Layla

          Haha, I like grocery store romance novels a lot, too. I used to be so fascinated by the covers as a child! And yes, I also have a lot of reading to do in genres I’m unfamiliar with. (What a hardship – more books to read!)
          Layla recently posted…If You Could Be Mine: Review