Review—An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

An_Acquantaince

When Sarah begins her senior year of high school, Jason is just the cute new soccer captain. But as they spend more and more time together, Sarah feels increasingly conflicted about the nature of their relationship. She still insists, however, that he is just “an acquaintance.”

I read through this compelling story in a single day. I couldn’t put it down until I found out what would happen to the characters, and when I finally did, I kept thinking about the complex themes Saba Syed explores through the life of a teenage girl.  

This is one of only a handful of YA novels that I know of that explores the lives of practicing Muslim characters. Sarah lives in a small town with her father and brother, who both practice Islam, albeit in different ways. There is also a local Muslim community—Sarah attends events at the mosque on weekends—and her best friend at school is Muslim. I really appreciated this.

Having said that, I found the direct discussions of religion a little heavy-handed. The characters in the story discuss their “character,” and they openly preach at each other. This is not my favorite thing to see in fiction, simply because it doesn’t ring true to me. Of course, that means that it’s a completely subjective judgment on my part. Here is one of the scenes that reminded me that I was reading a book:

Jasmine’s voice gentled. “You need to ask yourself . . . will you be able to uphold your values?”
I didn’t get what she meant. “Your religious values, Sarah!” Jasmine cried out in frustration. “Your chastity. Eventually, this will stain your reputation and your character.”

For someone else, that might be a completely normal conversation between two Muslim high schoolers. Not for me.

A definite high point of this novel is the nuanced relationship between the father and his two children. He is an awesome dad: he is present and encouraging, and he knows his children. For example, he knows Sarah well enough to get suspicious when she refuses his offer to invite Jason over for dinner. Despite this, he maintains a hands-off attitude throughout the novel, insisting that Sarah has to make her own decisions and learn her own lessons. This drives a wedge between him and Sarah’s uber-devout older brother Adam. I love that Sarah’s dad challenges stereotypes about strict, detached, oblivious immigrant dads. He says my favorite line in the whole book: “I’m not raising angels.”

Something else that is done fantastically in this book is the portrayal of emotion. In the lead-up to the climax, Sarah’s emotional state shows in the careful excuses and neat justifications she uses to deceive herself. In the latter part of the book, Sarah’s heartbreak, her disappointment in herself, and her loneliness are tangible.  

This book tackles some really tough topics, and one theme that I kept thinking about long after I put the book down was the idea of “reputation.” At one point, Sarah’s best friend warns her not to “tarnish” the “sterling reputation” she’s worked so hard to maintain. Sarah faces consequences based on the idea of her “reputation” in the Muslim community, which vindicates the idea that she was wrong not to make her reputation a major consideration. Personally, this didn’t jibe with me at first. The kind of people who would gossip and ostracize someone from a community based on their supposed sins are not worthy of my consideration—I could care less what people like that think. But this story shows that when someone is the victim of that kind of ostracization, the consequences (whether or not they validate those people’s opinions) are something they and their family have to live with. It’s something I keep thinking about. 

Before I end, here is a quote from Sarah that gets at the heart of this story:

When girls at school had talked about losing control around the guys they liked, I’d laughed it off. I was embarrassed to admit it, but I had thought of myself as being better than them, assuming that the only reason they were so weak was because they didn’t have a belief system that kept them strong. I always thought that I was more disciplined and sensible, and that simply declaring myself almost rendered me immune to this particular trap. But the truth was that when I was faced with temptation, I was proven just as susceptible as the next person. And now I had to do my best to regain my strength.

Candid and thought-provoking, this realistic story about teen love is a fantastic read. I highly recommend it for teen Muslim girls and anyone who enjoys YA. Published by Daybreak Press (2017), you can get a copy here and watch a trailer here.

If you’ve read An Acquaintance, I’d love to hear your thoughts below. 

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