A Girl Like That isn’t at all what I was expecting. This book is dark: it’s about rape culture, sexual assault, and the pervasive mistreatment of women and girls around the globe. These are important topics, and we need YA books to work through them. But all that being said, I didn’t love this book. I can see other readers enjoying this book, but it just didn’t work for me. Disclaimer: I’m not an OV reviewer, and you should start with OV reviews!
A timeless exploration of high-stakes romance, self-discovery, and the lengths we go to love and be loved.
Sixteen-year-old Zarin Wadia is many things: a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a risk taker. She’s also the kind of girl that parents warn their kids to stay away from: a troublemaker whose many romances are the subject of endless gossip at school. You don’t want to get involved with a girl like that, they say. So how is it that eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia has only ever had eyes for her? And how did Zarin and Porus end up dead in a car together, crashed on the side of a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia? When the religious police arrive on the scene, everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is questioned. And as her story is pieced together, told through multiple perspectives, it becomes clear that she was far more than just a girl like that.
A Girl Like That has a lot to say about the role men play in rape culture, but it is completely unaware that women and girls can also contribute. Almost every single man in this book is horrible: cheaters, abusers, rapists… But the girls are pretty awful, too. One of the girls at Zarin’s school runs a tumblr page that’s reminiscent of Gossip Girl; she posts the current gossip at the school and calls out her classmates who are too cozy with boys. This would have been a great opportunity for Bhathena to show us how toxic it is for girls to treat each other like this, but she glosses right over it. Nothing bad happens to the girl with the blog, and the slut-shaming is normalized. I was really disappointed in that.
Back to the men – every single man in this book is painfully chauvinistic (well, except Porus, but I’ll get to him later). I get that Bhathena is trying to show her readers how horribly women are treated in Saudi Arabia, but for that technique to work, you need a foil. We need to see good Muslim men next to the bad ones (note that Porus isn’t Muslim). But because there isn’t a single good Muslim man in the book, it comes off as Islamophobic. I can see readers, after finishing this book, walking away thinking that Islam is the problem, not global rape culture. All the girls are worried about getting married off to creepy middle-aged men or getting caught by the religious police, and it really seems like Muslim men are the problem. If Bhathena had only showed us one decent Muslim man, I wouldn’t have felt this way.
The characters were okay, but none of them really stood out to me. Zarin in particular felt underdeveloped. After all that she’d been through, she didn’t really grow that much. And Porus. Don’t even get me started. Whereas all the other men in this book are absolute pigs, Porus is perfect. Zarin treats him badly and pretty much only uses him, but he loves her anyway. I am so sick of that trope. Treating people badly (especially nice people who want to help you) is not cute. No one is going to see through your awful behavior to your good heart. Teenage boys especially should not be expected to see how deeply complex you really are. It’s completely unrealistic (not to mention uninteresting) to read about a character like this. Porus bored me to tears.
This book started out like a Middle Eastern Before I Fall: Zarin and Porus have just died in a car accident, and are hovering above the scene, watching their family members grieve and the police process the scene. This is an interesting technique, but it felt out of place here. Zarin’s ghost doesn’t play much of a role in the book; we only see the ghosts in the first and in the last few pages, and they don’t add much to the book.
We are soon swept back in time, and experience Zarin’s story leading up to the accident from the perspectives of a few different characters. The multiple narrators technique is pervasive in YA, but it’s one of those things that really annoy me when not done well. Here, we have Zarin and Porus as our narrators, but we also have a few random teenagers thrown in. All of their voices sounded exactly the same, and if the chapter headings hadn’t told me whose turn it was, I would have had no idea.
I didn’t enjoy this book, and now I feel like I’m in a book slump (it only takes one!). Hopefully my next read is better.