256 pages, published on August 20, 2013 by Algonquin Young Readers
Sahar has been in love with Nasrin for as long as she can remember. But the hidden romance they’ve shared in Iran is on the verge of destruction when Nasrin’s parents arrange for her to marry a handsome doctor. No one knows that the girls’ relationship is anything but a close friendship, but Sahar can’t stand the thought of Nasrin being with someone else. She thinks she has found a solution to their dilemma when she meets Parveen, a post-op transsexual. While homosexuality is considered a sin, sex changes are accepted and often encouraged by Iran’s government. Convinced that this is the only way to be with Nasrin and stop her wedding, Sahar begins attending support group meetings with transsexuals, both male and female. As Nasrin’s wedding date draws nearer, Sahar becomes desperate to begin the process of her sex reassignment, attempting to acquire hormones illegally and setting up a session with a surgeon. Of course, desperation rarely allows for things to go as planned and Sahar is predictably left where she started.
It was fascinating to read about everyday life in Iran, especially through the eyes of a young woman who is knowingly breaking the law. A love story between two young women is also rare and refreshing. But aside from the social commentary, I found If You Could Be Mine almost unreadable. Sara Farizan’s two lovers are so unlikable that it’s hard to understand how anyone could possibly fall in love with them. Writers should show rather than tell their audience the message they want to share. But the reader has Sahar simply telling us over and over how much she loves Nasrin without giving us much of a reason to believe their relationship. Most of her narration is spent lamenting how spoiled, rude, and bossy Nasrin can be. What we see of Nasrin confirms this; she seems to enjoy stringing Sahar along like a pet, always available at her beck and call. While Nasrin whispers a few “I love you”s to Sahar throughout the novel, she never even mentions finding a way to be together. Without being inside her head, we see only surface emotions from Nasrin, and it’s simply not enough to believe their relationship.
Surprisingly, I ended up disliking Sahar even more than her selfish counterpart. Sahar may only be seventeen years old, but she is certainly old enough to understand that undergoing a major operation such as sex reassignment is not something that can be done on a whim. She seems to think that it’s akin to visiting her dentist, a quick trip that will magically solve all of her problems. She doesn’t even consider the fact that the people who have this operation feel that they have no other choice, that they were actually born in the wrong body. Sahar may not be able to love Nasrin in public, but she is comfortable in her body, never doubting that she is meant to be a woman. It becomes offensive how little she respects the struggles of transsexuals. Sahar completely disregards the thoughts and feelings of those in her support group – people who have actually struggled with gender identity for their entire lives. Instead, she complains about them sharing emotions when all she wants is to find out how to start taking hormones. It’s only when she meets with a surgeon (and sees Nasrin’s doctor fiancé at the clinic) that she begins to understand the magnitude of what she plans to do. As the surgeon explains in graphic detail what the surgery entails, Sahar faints, and in turn finally comes to her senses about the operation.
I appreciate Farizan’s effort to illuminate the struggles of two women in love, especially in a culture that is largely unfamiliar to western readers. Fiction can be a great vehicle for sharing views and information about topics that are traditionally taboo. However, the message of this story was overshadowed by Sahar’s naivety and Nasrin’s selfishness. The more I read of If You Could BeMine, the more desperate I was to be done with it. Unsympathetic characters are unfortunately complemented by stilted dialogue that pushes the story to a sad and messy conclusion.
**I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley.