Review: A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena


May Contain Spoilers

This is a hard book to review without giving out a lot of spoilers, but I’m going to try my best. I was initially attracted to the book because of the setting, and the premise sounded intriguing. Was Zarin really a troublemaker, a deviant girl who leads her schoolmates astray? How did she and Porus end up in the deadly accident? Just bad luck? Someone looking to get back at her for some slight? Once I picked it up, I found it compelling and hard to put down. Did I like it, though? I don’t know. This is a hard book to like, because when I finished it, I like I had been fed through a wringer.

 

Zarin is an orphan, and the circumstances behind her mother’s death are shady. Zarin was there, a young child, and she had blocked all memories of the incident from her mind. She remembers blood, and her aunt’s overwrought reaction, but not much else.

Sent to live with her mother’s younger sister and her husband, Zarin’s childhood sucks. Her aunt is beyond overprotective, attempting to keep her from all contact with boys. Since Zarin was born out of wedlock, and her mother’s questionable job decision brought shame on the family, her aunt is determined that Zarin will do no wrong. No gossip will sully her door. What she gets instead is a belligerent teenager who only wants to be understood and loved. Her uncle exists in the background, allowing his wife to raise Zarin as she sees fit. He objects to the physical abuse that is doled out, but after a few futile attempts at interfering, backs off again, abandoning Zarin to his wife’s unstable tantrums and questionable mental state.

The sad thing about this book is that every adult in Zarin’s life turns their back on her. They aren’t there for her, accuse her of being a bad influence on everyone around her. Parents warn their daughters away from her, and Zarin makes some bad decisions in her desperation to feel normal, like she has a right to be loved. She has no female friends, and is isolated from her classmates by her unapproachable attitude, which is understandable since she is often the subject of unsavory gossip. To her, skipping school and hanging out with boys in their cars is worth the risk of getting caught by the religious police in Saudi Arabia. All she wants is an escape from her crap life, and she is willing to risk anything to get it.

When her childhood friend, Porus, moves to Saudi Arabia after the death of his father and takes a job at a local market, he offers a stability that has been missing in her life. Unfortunately, she rejects his comfort time and again. He is boring. He is too nice a guy. He wants a commitment, maybe, she doesn’t want anything to do with that. Instead, she makes things rough for Porus, putting him a bad spot with his mother, his employer, and even her aunt and uncle time and time again.

The story starts with Porus and Zarin dead and mangled after a car accident. The gossips whisper that the awful girl finally got what was coming to her. Too bad she took that nice boy with her. The examination into the events leading up to her death is painful and traumatic, and includes verbal and physical abuse from her guardians, as well as sexual abuse. Zarin had no one in her corner, and by the time Porus arrives, she has spent most of her life being beaten down and molded into a proper member of a strict, repressive society. Her attempts to find respite for herself lead to even more grief. While I found the writing compelling, this isn’t a story that I can ultimately say that I loved. It’s dark, and sad, and in the end, Zarin doesn’t ever get to catch a break.

Grade: 4 stars

Review copy provided by publisher

About the book:

A timeless exploration of high-stakes romance, self-discovery, and the lengths we go to love and be loved.
Sixteen-year-old Zarin Wadia is many things: a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a risk taker. She’s also the kind of girl that parents warn their kids to stay away from: a troublemaker whose many romances are the subject of endless gossip at school. You don’t want to get involved with a girl like that, they say. So how is it that eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia has only ever had eyes for her? And how did Zarin and Porus end up dead in a car together, crashed on the side of a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia? When the religious police arrive on the scene, everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is questioned. And as her story is pieced together, told through multiple perspectives, it becomes clear that she was far more than just a girl like that.
This beautifully written debut novel from Tanaz Bhathena reveals a rich and wonderful new world to readers. It tackles complicated issues of race, identity, class, and religion, and paints a portrait of teenage ambition, angst, and alienation that feels both inventive and universal.