***Warning: This review assumes that you've read the book.***
I so wish this book had done more. It's hard to say this, but it felt phoned-in. I'm surprised it was long-listed for the National Book Award.
It felt a bit like Ms. Mafi was not writing from a need to write this story, although I'm sure she felt passionate about the project when the idea occurred to her. It's Own Voices about a Muslim girl's struggle with prejudice (others' and her own), it has a sweet young-adult romance, and the heroine has a hip, unusual hobby. But everything was explored on such a superficial level, I found myself thinking, "I guess it's nice to have a meh book about diverse characters." We need diverse books that hit it out of the ballpark, but we also need diverse books that are just okay.
I got the sense that Ms. Mafi began writing this with the idea that there was an important story to tell: a person who is unjustly rejected and ridiculed by society because of her religion and clothing can herself begin to adopt prejudices. But then I picture Ms. Mafi unexpectedly finding herself slogging through the manuscript, trying with some discomfort to make it part memoir, second-guessing herself on how to tackle these serious issues, wanting it to be YA, thinking (erroneously) that the romance was the key to her character's growth, and the whole while she wasn't achieving the depth or lyricism that she wanted. But she'd written something by the end, it was finished, and her editor liked it well enough.
It was so benign, as literature. Shirin's family's religious life is oddly absent (the only mention of praying is when she and her brother lie to their parents that they've said their morning prayers) while focusing almost exclusively on the family's cultural traditions. The sections about break dancing are described without a hint of passion, or what it feels like for the character to dance, or what dancing makes her feel. (Some of the sections about her hobby sounds almost rote, like a wikipedia entry of break dancing and its history.) Break dancing doesn't tie in thematically in any sense, it just moves the plot along. The prose is flat and telling. ("Music [through earbuds hidden under her scarf] made my day so much easier. Walking through the halls at school was somehow easier; sitting alone all the time was easier.") And by the end, the story spends far too many pages and too much emotional energy on the struggle that the white boyfriend character, Ocean, faces when he dates Shirin. (He loses his basketball scholarship, gets expelled from school, Shirin worries about what their relationship has done to his college prospects and breaks up with him for the sake of his future, etc.)
It's incredibly valuable to show not only characters of color and of diverse religions and cultures in YA literature, but also the wide range of diversity there is. For example, undoubtedly Ms. Mafi's family and many other Muslim families are very accepting of white friends, so that the parents' welcoming attitude toward Ocean reflects an accurate part of the spectrum of the lives of children of immigrants. But while I don't expect Shirin's parents to reject Ocean, I do think his whiteness, his boyness, would create at least a small issue for these otherwise traditional parents--would be discussed, would be grappled with. By eliminating all sources of conflict about Shirin and Ocean's relationship other than what the outside world lobs at them, we get that same sense of superficiality that the novel has in so many dimensions. (Even Shirin's otherwise protective brother arranges for a quiet rendezvous for them in Shirin's bedroom.) In general Shirin's parents are not three-dimensional characters but a montage of charming, jovial characteristics.
After reading the focus on Ocean's struggle toward the end, I became suddenly disappointed by the title, too. A Very Large Expanse of Sea is, in fact, an ocean. I have an active imagination, and I picture Ms. Mafi's beta readers or editor pointing this out. I see the author tossing in this line to try to deflect the criticism that this book is too much about the boy: "We broke apart, fighting to breathe, holding on to each other like we were drowning, like we’d been lost, left for dead in a very large expanse of sea.” See there, she says? Now it's a line in the book, now it's only a double entendre.
We need diverse books, even the ones that are just okay. This one is just okay.