It’s senior year and Gabe’s family is moving to a new town. Thankfully, his cousin knows the lay of the land and gives Gabe some tips for the first day of his last year of high school. By the end of his first day, however, the only thing Gabe is interested in is learning more about the most attractive boy he’s ever seen. His cousin tries to warn Gabe off by telling him that boy is bound to be no good on account of his religion, but Gabe will have none of it. In fact, surreptitiously following the hot guy home and seeing him take a break to…kneel in a secluded copse and pray…only intrigues Gabe more. Turns out the boy’s name is Kerem and he’s a devout Muslim.
Senior class president and all around golden boy, Kerem never thought he would have to face the truth about his sexuality. That is until the new kid shows up and makes his entire being sing with desire…to get close, to be friends, and a whole lot more. Kerem is confident his parents will be accepting, if not thrilled. The concern is Kerem’s considerably more orthodox cousin, Timir, whose own family was touched by one tragedy after another—including a so-called honor killing.
Despite their differences, Gabe is eager to learn more about Kerem, including his religious practices and bits of the language that peppers Kerem’s speech. Kerem, on the other hand, is thankful Allah has graced him with a person with whom he can share his whole heart. Over the course of the school year, the affection deepens between the two teenagers as they defy conservative social notions. Everything should have lead up to an absolutely storybook prom for Gabe and Kerem—but a devastating act threatens to tear Kerem’s family apart.
The blurb sounded very attractive for this book. The issue of diversity—this time, religious with the focus on Islam—was front and center, but juxtaposed against American culture. The author’s notes made it clear Sanders was exploring facets of Islam as well and, I thought, on a mission to contribute positive representation of the religion to the world of writing. If I had to reflect purely on the representation of Islam here, I think Kerem’s family is too cookie-cutter to really expand boundaries or change minds. Kerem and his parents are goody-two-shoes good to the point of being utterly one-dimensional. Kerem barely breaks with this simply by his X-rated thoughts (and occasional on-page deeds) about Gabe. Whatever research might have gone into substantiating such flowerly, hyper polite, and super positive attitudes about everything (save Kerem’s mother’s very restrained exasperation at her daughter’s Bridezilla attitude) does not come through either on page, nor in any footnotes or endnotes.
The “devout but not extremist” bulk fo Kerem’s family is countered by their cousin, Tim. As good as Kerem and his immediate family are, Tim is dark and moody and it’s patently obvious he’s is driven by religious fervor into extreme thoughts, behavior, and actions. If this was supposed to be an glimpse into what may happen when someone is radicalized, it missed the mark. Rather than looking at any process Tim may have gone through, his increasingly dangerous behavior is driven only by his own (twisted?) sense of morality. Granted, his own family suffered immensely from bad luck and an ultra orthodox parental figure—but how or why more than a decade of living with Kerem’s family, raised as their son, seems to have had zero impact on Tim’s behavior rendered him pretty flat, too. He feels there to serve as the “terrorist element” and nothing more.
Finally, Gabe himself. He struck me as a typical privileged white male. His one saving grace is that when he realizes he’s attracted to a Muslim, he endeavors to learn more about Islam. Apart from that, he was grating. In the twenty four hours he has known and talked to Kerem, Gabe then goes on to mansplain Islam (and some aspects of Judaism and racism in general) to his mother. Gabe also just assumes his mother is available for any and all his own needs. Gabe needs something for the school bake sale? He’ll just have his mother whip up a series of treats. Kerem’s sister needs a wedding dress cobbled together from three different pictures of wedding dresses? Gabe volunteers his mother to sew that up. It was also annoying that the white boy swoops in and saves the day at the end—another reinforcement that white people have the power to save the world (or however much of it they’re interested in).
The overall plot was rather benign. It’s just a get together, except instead of Kerem and Gabe waffling over how they feel about each other (they’re both pretty much instantly attracted), they worry over what it means to be either in love with a Muslim or to be a gay Muslim in love with another man (well, selfish boy). Kerem and Gabe take turns being narrator and there are clear headings at each chapter to tell us who is narrating; even so, during some of the long dialogue exchanges, it was sometimes hard to tell who was speaking. Partly because Gabe and Kerem have made a point to speak like one another. This means Gabe talks like he knows all about Islam (he picks up stuff here and there from Kerem, obviously; there was also the “senior research project” where Gabe magically learned all there was to know about what it means to be gay and a Muslim…a pretty damn big concept to have to swallow) and Kerem picks up on Gabe’s speech patterns (party boy? Annoying teenager? Why does Kerem even need to DO this when he’s been born and raised in the US and is a product of the public school system?!).
On top of the ridiculously flat characters in cheap melodramatic scenarios, the writing itself vacillated between cheap romance novel and mansplaining.
Kerem talking to Gabe:
Look, Gabe, my love, my only love, I can help you with your fears. I can guarantee that we were not raised all that differently, because we’ve both been raised in houses full of love. And full of God’s love. Whether we call Him Allah or God, he is among us, in both our families.
Gabe, about Kerem:
I fall asleep, spent—and wrapped in a cocoon, a cocoon spun by Kerem, my beautiful god.
There is also a series of “describe with a simile, then have the narrator expound on the literal simile.”
- [My mom] opens the door and waltzes in, happy as a clam. I don’t know why or how clams can be happy, but that’s what I’ve heard, and Mom is very happy now, so she must be happy as a clam.
- I would need at least two shots of tequila in me—not that I know how that would make me feel—to do what [my father] is doing right now.
- It’s like the worst hangover I could ever imagine. And since I’ve never touched a drop of alcohol, imagining is all I can do.
Overall, I think Sanders’ missed the mark on this. Out of the whole cast, I liked Kerem the most and I suppose that’s a good thing for representation. I did enjoy his qualms about what it means to be a gay Muslim and especially how his immediate family will will react. There seemed to be genuine character depth in that, at least. Whatever positives I got out of this were overshadowed by Gabe’s self-righteous attitude towards his mother and his cousin. There is a sliver of a window where he honestly reflects on what it means to have a close personal (and in this case, romantic) relationship with someone who was raised with a different set of norms…but that’s resolved in a hot minute. I wouldn’t strongly recommend this book to readers who are interested in diversity issues or compelling characters, but you may find entertainment value if you like high school drama and predictable action.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.