To preface my review, I’d never heard of this book or any reviews prior to reading the story so I was going in very blind. I saw it on the new books shelf in the YA section, picked it up and brought it home. I don’t have a long winding prologue for this review, this is all I could muster today, so I’m going to jump into the book review.
That Thing We Call a Heart is by Sheba Karim and was published May of this year. The novel follows Shabnam Qureshi during her last summer at home before college. She is at odds with her best friend, Farah, after Farah decided to wear the Muslim headscarf without consulting Shabnam. With a bleak summer ahead of her because of this estrangement, Shabnam is not excited for the season, until she meets Jamie. After he gets Shabnam a job at his Aunt Marianne’s pie shack, Shabnam beings to fall in love with Jamie, likening their relationship to the rose and the nightingale from classic Urdu poetry. As the summer progresses, begins to reconnect with Farah, but she mistrusts Jamie, which increases tension.
Generally, YA contemporary romances are more character driven novels, which is fine; this simply means the characters have to be enjoyable to read about. That Thing We Call a Heart was sorely lacking in this department. I strongly disliked Shabnam, I felt she was selfish and uninteresting; she was a terrible friend and came across as way too immature for someone about to enter college. Jamie was also just a crummy character; though I will say I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be written this way. Part of the plot, is Farah’s dislike and distrust of Jamie, soI wondered if Jamie was written as shady to give reason for this negativity.
While this would make sense, it weakened the romance of the novel. Shabnam was all-in immediately and it felt like insta-love, which is frustrating with a romance novel. What makes this even more confusing was the general lack of romance presented. It is confusing that Shabnam was so heavily in love with Jamie when the relationship was so weak as written, it was just so incredibly unbelievable and uninteresting.
Honestly, I was going to give this book two stars because of how weak the romantic story was and the atrocious characters, but Farah and the last 20-30 pages saved it for me. As I’d noted several times, Shabnam was egocentric most of the novels 300 pages, but experienced considerable character growth during the last chapters that earned back a star. The last third of the book also had a lot more of Farah’s story (though still not much) which made things better for me.
Honestly, I wish this story was about Farah. I think there were a lot of unanswered questions that were presented about Farah’s life and we kept being told that we’d come back to it, but we never did! That drove me crazy, particularly because Farah was the only redeeming character in this story. If I could give any advice for Karim’s next project, it would be please write a story about Farah.
On a more positive side, I love how Karim presented how a devout Muslim isn’t what people often assume they are. Farah, who took her faith seriously, still smoked weed and dressed in a modest, but eclectic style, and still kept with her faith. I think seeing greater diversity in the presentation of Muslims is important as it helps people realize their is more than one way to be a devout Muslim, just as there is for all faiths.
I also enjoyed the introduction of Partition. I know little about Partition, or the division of India into Pakistan and India; it wasn’t discussed much in my history classes and I’ve almost never seen it in books. My only knowledge of this time period is from quick snippets in films I’ve watched. Karim’s discussion of it in the book and how easy it was to believe Shabnam’s lie about it, shows just how little people know about a pivotal moment in fairly recent history. It made me want to learn more about it. While I didn’t find this to be an enjoyable romance, I thought it showcased important elements of history that will hopefully have readers looking to find out more about Partition.
TL;DR: Overall, a fairly weak story, with unlikeable characters and a shoddy romance. On a positive side, presented an often unseen picture of devout Muslims, who break “from the norm.” 3 out of 5 stars.