Thoughtful, compassionate, and quietly moving. Four stars for a celebration of faith, love, and other marvels.

Book cover: Love from A to Z

marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes—because they make French fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.

An oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are.

But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry.

When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break. Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her.

Then her path crosses with Adam’s.

Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam’s stopped going to classes, intent, instead, on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister. Adam’s also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father.

Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals. Until a marvel and an oddity occurs…

Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

Goodreads | Amazon | Indiebound

I can’t begin this review without mentioning the title. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but I hate this title with my whole heart. In my head, I’m renaming it Marvels and Oddities (which would pair well with S. K. Ali’s first book, Saints and Misfits) or Love and Other Marvels or Adam, Zayneb, and the Oddities or literally anything other than that awful title.

With that out of the way, I can tell you how much I loved this story. Because I truly loved this story. After a slow start and some eyebrow-raising choices, the book settles into a deeply moving tale of two young Muslims trying to hold on to the good and the important in a difficult world.

“We were meant to meet. I believe there’s a connection between the things that happen to us, beyond ourselves. Like Dad taught me to believe. And I’ve believed this way for seven years. Zayneb and I were meant to cross paths. I want to get to know her, to keep showing her my life.”

The book splits perspectives between two very different people who are united by one thing: they’ve been put in painful, impossible situations through no fault of their own, and they’ve had powerful reactions. This is what the book is about–responding to horrible realities. How should we react to awful events, how do people react in reality, and what do we do with the difference?

Ali approaches these essential questions with a deep well of compassion. She isn’t afraid of the messy, unsolvable nature of these problems, and her tolerance for nuance allows the book to hold two truths at the same time:

  1. These reactions are understandable and natural and righteous, but
  2. This is no way to live.

Yes, Zayneb has every right to be angry, and it’d be unreasonable to expect her to not have emotional reactions to the injustices she witnesses daily. At the same time, blind rage is no way to live. It is corrosive to the heart and ultimately unproductive. Zayneb is never going to be “zen” about hate and discrimination–nor should she be–but there has to be another way to respond.

Likewise, it’s impossible to blame Adam for turning inward after the loss of his mother and his diagnosis. He has honest, loving reasons for collapsing in on himself and hiding the truth. But that doesn’t make it the right choice. There must be a way for him to do the right thing, the hard thing, and find a way to live again.

“I get angry for the right reasons. So I embraced my anger. I was the angry one.”

This book will probably be dismissed by many as an underdeveloped insta-love. I understand this objection, but I think it deeply misunderstands the story.

“Insta-love” is a problem when it is used as shorthand instead of developing a relationship. That isn’t what’s happening here–the author and the characters are fully aware that these feelings develop quickly. That’s the point. Much of the book is a religious/philosophical meditation on serendipity, on the “marvels and oddities” of the world that make unlikely things happen every day. In this sense, it deserves the comp I’ve seen with Nicola Yoon’s beautiful The Sun Is Also A Star, another moving story of love at the speed of light.

If you really can’t get on board with a love story that develops over a couple weeks (with all the accompanying tropes), this isn’t the book for you. The story needs you to buy into the depth and validity of Adam’s and Zayneb’s feelings. It gives you everything you need to fall in love alongside them, but you have to meet the book halfway.

“Bye, this girl I met on a plane who showed up at my house, who showed up in my heart.”

Unfortunately, I think the book is held back by the chosen structure. A prologue explains that we are reading excerpts from the characters’ journals that have been edited/rewritten as narrative prose. It just doesn’t work for me. With the layer of self-filtering and edits, we’re too removed from the characters’ thoughts to really be immersed. At the same time, the actual events are obscured and interrupted by the “Marvels and Oddities” and entries in an irritating way.

“I refused to be the sad clamshell on my burkini. Today was a day for victories.”

I have to close by mentioning the wonderful representation this book brings to the table. While publishing is making great progress, we don’t exactly have Muslim teen protagonists falling out of our ears… and we have two practicing Muslim leads having a love story.

I’ve expressed reservations before about the way portrayals of religion in YA tend toward use of religion only as an abstract identity: something imposed by parents, but rarely a part of the way teen characters think or feel or see the world. Portrayals of Muslim teens like the one in Samira Ahmed’s Love, Hate, and Other Filters are valuable, but don’t actually have any practicing or believing Muslim teen characters. Instead, Islam is an abstract, antagonistic force; something impersonal that gets in the way of the character’s goals. Likewise, many portrayals of teens of other faiths, like those in Katie Henry’s Heretics Anonymous, focus only on the set dressing. Characters interact with religious objects or rituals, but faith isn’t part of the characterization.

Love From A to Z is the first YA I’ve ever read that I thought helped me understand, a little bit better, what being a Muslim teen is like. Not that it claims to “explain” Islam or represent all Muslims, but it actually shows how Adam’s and Zayneb’s faith is part of the way they think, feel, and approach the world.

“Someday, though, I’ll toss this hair in front of the one I end up with. My significant other.”

This is somewhat of a spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you haven’t read yet, but I spent a lot of the book worried that Adam and Zayneb were going to kiss, which is a super weird reaction to have to a romance. I have so much respect for Ali for following-through on the characters’ commitment to having a relationship according to their beliefs. I hope this book falls into the hands of many teens who are waiting for marriage for any (or some degree of) physical intimacy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that represented in YA. I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m taking away from the importance of the Muslim rep when I say that I think many non-Muslim readers will feel seen and validated for the first time by these characters. (It also made this story a soothing balm after the horrendous Five Feet Apart, which insists that being in love with someone you can’t touch is literally unbearable.)

Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in FIVE FEET APART.

If you’re looking for Ownvoices reviews from Muslim readers, the posts by Chaima @ Runaway with Dream Thieves and Noura @ The Perks of Being Noura are both wonderful, and they can speak to the Muslim rep much better than I can.

I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of this title at no charge from the publisher via Netgalley with the expectation of an honest review. All opinions are my own.
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