Title: That Thing We Call a Heart
Author: Sheba Karim
Synopsis: 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 hooking up with the most racist boy in school and 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.
Huge thank you to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!
I will be 100% honest: it wasn’t until I had gone to Harper Collins’ Spring Preview that I had even hard of this book. It didn’t seem like there was a lot of buzz surrounding this one, which is a real shame, because it is a fantastic, punchy little book about family, friendship, religion and first love.
At it’s core That Thing We Call A Heart is really about the friendship between Shabnam and her “former” best friend Farah. The two had a falling out when Farah began to proudly start wearing her headscarf to school without consulting Shabnam. This small but significant incident spirals the two best friends into a situation where they learn to be a part for awhile, but converge on how to make their friendship whole again. There is also a romance involving a non-Muslim boy who is interested in Muslim culture, a father obsessed with Urdu romance poetry but doesn’t see his wife, and a mother who has so much love to give yet seems neglected. A lot happens in this tiny novel, and all of it is interesting.
Honestly, my favourite parts of this novel were the moments between Shabnam and Farah. When they were focusing on their friendship you can see the intense chemistry between the two of them and why they were friends in the first place. Sheba Karim does this amazing job of building the relationship between these two best friends and there is a genuine sense of care and compassion coming from both sides. When Farah begins to question Shabnam’s “relationship” with Jamie, she does it from such a caring standpoint, and while it seems like she may be playing devil’s advocate, you get a very genuine vibe from her that she simply wants what is best for Shabnam. Farah was easily my favourite character in this book, as she has such a fantastic and blunt attitude. We need more badass ladies like her in contemporary YA.
I also loved Shabnam, even though she definitely had some moments that were very frustrating. I think Sheba Karim does a great job of capturing a teenager who is head over heels regarding their first love, and you can feel the this sense that Shabnam truly is in love with Jamie throughout the story. It doesn’t feel trite or forced, it feels like teenage lovesickness — realistic and heartbreaking. I will say, I still kinda didn’t get Jamie’s appeal at all in the story, and that is maybe because he’s not the kind of guy I’d dig in the slightest, but I can respect Shabnam’s interest in the guy, and I do appreciate that he was written in a way where he was trying to understand and respect Muslim culture. I thought that aspect of his character was actually very well done.
Can I also say how much I loved Shabnam’s family? There are so many moments that were so funny and toughing between her and her folks. I thought her mum was adorable and sweet, and I loved how caring she is. I also found Shabnam’s father hilarious and I liked that he made no bones about who he is throughout. They felt like read parents, which in YA often is completely unheard of.
I am so glad I was given the chance to read this book, because when it comes to books that feel genuine from start to finish, That Thing We Call A Heart succeeds. I really adored my time with this book, and I felt like I was able to really connect with the characters in this story, even though I don’t share the same culture as them. I felt like I learned so much about Muslim culture and the importance of family, both birth and chosen. There’s a lot of beauty in this book, and the ending definitely left me heartbroken.