She just smiled sweetly and told me not to worry so much. That’s what we do. Smile and not worry so much. Riot in the streets? Smile and don’t worry so much. See the swinging bodies in the square? Smile and don’t worry so much. Can’t be with the person you love because it’s against the law? Smile, damn it.
(from If You Could Be Mine)
Sara Farizan’s debut young adult novel, If You Could Be Mine, is not a typical teenage love story. Told from the point of view of 17-year-old Sahar, it is the story of two girls who have been best friends since childhood and have fallen in love. They must settle for stolen kisses during their afternoon study sessions, taking care to keep their romantic feelings a secret. Sahar and Nasrin live in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death.
Sahar, absorbed in her studies for the Concours exam in hopes of scoring high enough to attend Tehran University to study medicine, thinks she and Nasrin have plenty of time together. But when Nasrin’s wealthy parents arrange her marriage to a doctor, Sahar is devastated. She is forced to pretend she is happy for her friend and assist in the wedding preparations, and she already has enough on her plate between her studies and caring for her father, who can’t seem to move on since his wife’s death.
Only her gay cousin, Ali, understands the depths of Sahar’s anger and despair. He introduces Sahar to Iran’s underground gay community, with parties and restaurants where they can relax and be themselves. It is through Ali that Sahar meets Parveen, a transsexual, and begins to seriously consider becoming a man so she can marry Nasrin, as sex reassignment is legal in Iran because being born in the wrong body is merely an illness that can be cured. Sahar has never really thought about being a lesbian — she’s just in love with Nasrin — so is her love for one girl worth losing her true self?
If You Could Be Mine is a powerful novel that made me laugh, cry, and want to scream at the injustice of it all. Farizan shows how difficult it is to be gay in Iran — and how difficult it is to be a woman. From the fear of arrest for showing your elbows to the possibility of being stoned to death for committing adultery to the black clothing digitally applied to actors in DVDs, Farizan shows the repression and fear felt by Iranian citizens. I found the cultural descriptions both fascinating and infuriating, especially the rules applying to women. Farizan does a great job setting the scene for Sahar and Nasrin’s impossible love so that readers understand the hopelessness of their situation and Sahar’s desperate attempt at happiness.
Farizan’s decision to tell the story in the first person present tense was spot on. I really felt like I knew Sahar’s hopes, dreams, fears, strengths and weaknesses, and especially her confusion, and I felt like I was in the moment with her. Through her eyes, I saw that the love she had for Nasrin was real and pure, and it made me mad that it was considered a crime. Sahar is such a well-developed character, and her interactions with Nasrin, Ali, Parveen, her baba, and Nasrin’s mother add so many layers to the story — from Nasrin’s assumption that nothing will change between them after she is married to Sahar’s experiences in a support group for transsexuals.
For such a short novel, If You Could Be Mine packs a surprisingly huge punch. Farizan’s writing is so smooth and fresh that I couldn’t put the book down and finished it in a day. I couldn’t help but love Sahar, and readers who remember the intensity of first love will understand why she is willing to go to extremes to make it work. If You Could Be Mine is a touching story of friendship, family, and love that is tender and heartfelt but also forceful and outspoken. It’s definitely a novel I won’t soon forget and would make for a great book club discussion.
Disclosure: I received If You Could Be Mine from Algonquin Young Readers for review.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.