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A Very Large Expanse of Sea

Review

A Very Large Expanse of Sea

Tahereh Mafi’s first foray into contemporary fiction is a beautiful and heartbreaking story that is inspired by Mafi’s own experiences. Tahereh Mafi is best known for her bestselling young adult science fiction series, Shatter Me, and her middle-grade fantasy series, Furthermore.

Tahereh Mafi shares a very personal story inspired by her own teen years dealing with racism and her love of breakdancing in A VERY LARGE EXPANSE OF SEA. This novel is set in 2002, just a year after the events of 9/11, and follows Shirin, a young Muslim girl. Shirin and her brother start at a new high school, but while her brother fits in and makes friends immediately, Shirin stands out because of her hijab. Shirin’s headscarf makes her a target for racism and her experiences right after 9/11 have made her recede into herself. The one thing that brings Shirin out of her own head is her love for breakdancing that she shares with her brother. They start a breakdancing club at their school and begin to hone their craft as they make friends with a few boys who also enjoy breakdancing.

"A VERY LARGE EXPANSE OF SEA is a perspective and a time-period that hasn’t been explored...in young adult literature...[it] will have a long lasting impression on young readers."

My least favorite aspect of the novel was the breakdancing plotline. I know that this is an aspect of the story that is personal to Tahereh Mafi as she was a breakdancer in high school. Still, I wish she would have educated readers about it more since it is no longer in vogue. While the idea of Shirin having something of her own to care about and focus on was so important to her self-identity, I never felt connected to that part of the story. This was one of the aspects of the story that made it feel more like 2002 because it’s an area of pop culture that I have never been introduced to. I kept wanting to learn more about breakdancing and while Mafi explained certain aspects, I never felt like I cared enough about it.

However, it was the romance that I found to be the star of A VERY LARGE EXPANSE OF SEA and made it difficult to put down. Tahereh Mafi perfectly captures the anxious feeling of falling in love and not always knowing what the other person is feeling. You will feel Shirin’s mixed emotions in the pit of your stomach.

Shirin’s biology lab partner, Ocean, shows an interest in Shirin and wants to be friends but she holds him at arm's length. It becomes clear that Ocean’s feelings towards Shirin are not platonic. But because Ocean is white and the star of the school’s basketball team, Shirin knows that their relationship won’t be accepted by others and wants to save Ocean from the hate that he has never had to experience. However, Ocean and Shirin pursue a relationship against Shirin’s better judgment and when their community finds out they are both subjected to varying amounts of bullying.

I loved that the turning point for the heartbreak of their racism was Shirin’s breakdancing performance. It was beautiful to see art and expression transcend prejudice. While the ending was bittersweet, I think Tahereh Mafi provided a more realistic teen romance than is typically portrayed in many young adult books. Yes, the romance of this story has the all-consuming intensity of first love it also shows that your first love probably won’t be your last.

A VERY LARGE EXPANSE OF SEA is a perspective and a time-period that hasn’t been explored greatly in young adult literature. While you will love the romance of the novel, it is the experience of racism and prejudice that will have a long lasting impression on young readers.

Reviewed by Dana Cuadrado on October 29, 2018

A Very Large Expanse of Sea
by Tahereh Mafi