If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan.
Page Count: 256.
Published: August 20, 2013.
Published by: Algonquin Young Readers (US), Harper (Canada).
Source: BEA Signing.
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 have been, 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?
This book was not what I was expecting it to be. What I went into prepared for a story about fighting and sacrificing for the sake of love and the freedom to be one's true self was instead a narrative about a young Iranian girl trying to sort out her relationship with both who she thinks she loves and who she thinks she is. It brings her into an exploration of the underlying LGBTQ culture in Iran, but does not have her truly fighting for an acceptance that I had thought would be the focal goal of the storyline. This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book or that I thought it was bad, not at all. It just was not what I expected.
If You Could Be Mine introduces Sahar and Nasrin, two very different young women who are clearly very close. Their friendship has become what they both (Sahar especially) seem to see as love and Sahar is determined to find a way for them to be together forever, despite Iran's strict anti-homosexual policies. In what appears to be a strange contradiction, Iran allows and even supports gender-reassignment surgery if someone feels they have been born in the wrong body. This surgery is what Sahar sees as her only real option to be with Nasrin, and much of the story focuses on Sahar's approach to the possibility of this very serious surgery and explores how far she is willing to go for who she believes is her true love.
There is a clear disconnect, though, between the girls. Sahar makes it clear over the course of the novel that she has decided to do whatever it takes for their future together, whereas Nasrin takes risks only for herself (and for her fashion choices, most often). There is a clear sense that Nasrin is not as invested in the relationship as Sahar. This feeling seems to only become stronger as an easier path for her life presents itself to Nasrin. While the characters were fairly complex and quite interesting overall, this dynamic made both of them somewhat unlikable. Nasrin is selfish and unwilling to see or acknowledge the sacrifices Sahar is making for her, while Sahar is frustratingly blind to Nasrin's reluctance to truly attempt to be a "forever couple," not to mention very dependent on Nasrin's attention. Clearly she is experiencing a lot of confusion, fear, and desperation, but I didn't feel that excused her blind rush into life-changing decisions. I will admit that I didn't truly enjoy either character, though I absolutely connected with some of Sahar's ambition, devotion, and insecurities. The one thing I did appreciate about Sahar's frustrating beginnings is that it gave her a lot of room to grow throughout the story, and her growth did impress me.
While neither of the main characters really struck a chord with me, I did appreciate one of the other characters. The man Nasrin becomes engaged to (which is what spurs Sahar into action to find a fast way to stop the wedding), Reza, is a genuinely nice man. It is clear that he cares about Nasrin and wants to be a good husband for her, and it is undeniable, as much as Sahar hates it. Even she can see that letting Nasrin marry Reza is the best, safest route for Nasrin because she will be taken care of and married to a man. Reza adds another layer of complexity to the situation and to Sahar and Nasrin's relationship because once he enters the picture, it is not as if Sahar is saving Nasrin from a terrible future; it is possible she is actually fighting only to end up with that if anything should go wrong.
Farizan's voice in this piece is really quite refreshing. While there are certainly many rough, difficult moments that are unsettling for me, as someone raised in an overall tolerant environment (Canada), she handles them with care while maintaining honesty and emotion. It is clear that Farizan is not judging with the statements she is making, instead maintaining an openness about the subject matter even when secrecy was key in the plot. My only wish for the plot was that there had been more examination of the situation faced by women in Iran. There were some moments that revealed a lot about Iranian culture but I felt that with such a unique setting in YA literature, I went in hoping for more of those moments and more background on them. I think it was a well-told story overall, but it missed the "oomph" factor that would have made it all the more powerful and unforgettable. Still, a strong and compelling debut that makes me very curious about the author's next work.
While I was held back by characters I didn't love, there was a strong story in If You Could Be Mine. It is a great read for anyone looking for the books that go beyond what seem to be the boundaries of YA. It gives an excellent look inside a culture very different from in the west while also exploring human relationships, LGBTQ issues in another circumstance, and the lengths some will go to for love.