Normally, I keep my reading commentary confined to the "What I'm Reading Now" section of my blog (see the tabs above). But I just finished If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan, and as I got my hands on an advance reading copy (thanks to my wonderful agent!) and as the themes of this novel are close to my heart, I thought I would give it a longer post.
A short synopsis... due to hit shelves on August 20th, this Young Adult novel takes place in modern day Iran. Narrated by Sahar, a young woman in her senior year of high school, it tells the story of her love for her best friend, Nasrin, and her struggles with this love both in the context of Iranian society generally and also in the context of Nasrin's upcoming marriage.
This is the debut novel of Sara Farizan, and she has done a fantastic job with pacing. The story moves quickly yet clearly, with the tension heightening in every scene. I wouldn't call her prose sparse, but she has kept the details to a minimum, jettisoning anything extra, and the result is a stream-lined and compelling story.
Most captivating for me was the setting in Iran. Apart from headlines in the news and Persepolis, I don't know much about the country or culture. Farizan uses little phrases of Farsi to create an ambiance, refers to clothing and food in a way that further develops the context, and drops in delightful little details such as the way that the narrator sees the two Khomeinis (angry grandpa and disappointed grandpa) whose images appear everywhere.
Even more, the setting in modern-day Iran was compelling to me because of the LGBT angle of the book. These two young women are in love -- they know this and acknowledge it to each other. (Thank goodness, by the way, that this wasn't another novel about a young LGBT person in love with a straight person... I feel like I have read too many of those!) But their love has to be hidden because it is illegal. Farizan makes the danger present but not exaggerated. She mentions that young men have been hanged for being in relationships, but she also shows the underground culture of cafes and scenes where LGBT people are relatively open and accepted.
Once Nasrin is engaged, Sahar is desperate to find a way to stop the marriage and keep Nasrin for herself. The middle stanza of the book is devoted to her pursuit of sexual reassignment surgery: she wants to become a man so that she can marry Nasrin. And here's where the cultural context bowled me over. In Iran (I'm assuming Farizan is portraying this accurately...) sexual reassignment is permitted, even paid for by the government, because it is considered an illness with a cure. In fact, the implication seems to be that reassignment cures homosexuality. The novel makes it clear that just because the government sanctions the surgery, it doesn't mean that post-op transsexuals have an easy life. They face rejection by families and friends and have to keep their past hidden. But they have a greater veneer of legitimacy than do gays and lesbians.
If I had to lodge one complaint about this novel, it would be that the narrator, Sahar, who otherwise is plausibly intelligent and thoughtful, rushes into the idea of sexual reassignment with a completely unbelievable amount of naivety, ignorance, and lack of forethought. Even though she is desperate to keep Nasrin, I just couldn't buy that she would actually believe that she could transition in a short window (one month) and that Nasrin (and Nasrin's parents) would accept her after the transition.
But that is one small point. Otherwise, I was delighted with this novel. In particular, I want to praise it for the way in which it explains (implicitly) the difference between sexuality and gender. Farizan illustrates this difficult nuance artfully and compellingly. This is a great novel to share with a younger reader (6-9 grade?) and open up conversation about LGBT issues as well as human rights in other cultures.