Everything should be looking rosy for Noreen, the protagonist of Sheba Karim’s The Marvelous Mirza Girls. She has just graduated from high school and been accepted into college. She has good, understanding friends. She and her mother, Ruby, have a close relationship. She hardly knows her father but is fine with keeping things distant. Still, she’s having a hard time getting over the death of her beloved aunt, a fun-loving, successful physician who died a year ago.
Noreen doesn’t have any great passion to throw herself into. She’s a runner who joined the cross-country team only because the school counselor suggested it to round out her résumé — though running has become “a respite from the grief and the doubts and the dark.” She enjoys screenwriting but hasn’t felt inspired to write in the wake of her aunt’s death. She’s had only one boyfriend and doesn’t seem to be mourning the loss of the relationship. In spite of all the good things in her life, sorrow has left her in a deep funk: “[S]he couldn’t write, wasn’t sure what to say, and the idea of College was more exhausting than exhilarating.”
When Ruby suggests that Noreen accompany her on a months-long business trip to Delhi — a place her late aunt had always wanted to visit — Noreen sees no reason not to go. She defers her first year of college, and the two of them depart on their adventure.
Despite Noreen’s claim that she and her mother don’t act like the Gilmore Girls, they do seem like best friends rather than mother and daughter. They appear to have no secrets from each other and speak openly about sex, pot smoking, and other sometimes touchy subjects with affection and lighthearted banter.
In India, Ruby is engaged in some vaguely defined work with an NGO, and Noreen is often left on her own without much to do. Fortunately, Kabir — the son of a friend of a friend of her godfather — gets in touch and offers to take her around.
Having grown up in New Jersey, Noreen doesn’t know what to expect from Delhi. She’s a good observer, though, and through her sharp eye and Kabir’s knowledge of Delhi’s history, the beauty and ugliness of this large, ancient city are depicted in vivid and realistic detail. Together, the two visit wildly disparate places: an art gallery where a central piece is a huge phallus made of car parts, a ruined temple where visitors leave letters for the local jinn, an ancient palace, a celebrity photo shoot, and more.
Soon, Noreen and Kabir are spending most of their time together. He is an excellent tour guide and easygoing and handsome as well. And when Noreen discovers that her crush on him is reciprocated and they fall in love, their wanderings take on a romantic aspect.
Noreen has to learn to juggle the unfamiliar expectations and standards of a traditional society with the concerns of a modern teen — forming a relationship with a partner, dealing with an absentee father, and encountering the #MeToo movement, which makes an unexpected intrusion into her relationship with Kabir.
Readers looking for the standard YA fare of teen rebellion, illicit love, peer pressure issues, high stakes, and the like will find their expectations shaken by this tale of a well-centered and confident young woman. Noreen is faced with very few risks compared to the heroines of most YA novels — no world to save, no injustice to right, no great lesson to learn — so the reader can concentrate on following her exploration of the city and herself.
Despite its 400-page length, The Marvelous Mirza Girls — the fourth novel by Karim, who is a writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt — is a light, quick read, with many touches of humor. Noreen is an engaging narrator. It’s unclear what, if anything, she is looking for in India and whether she found it. But sometimes you don’t need a big plan; you just need to get away and recharge. In this ancient and modern, holy and unholy city, Noreen finds the will to move on with her life.
Tracy Barrett is a writer who lives in Nashville. Her most recent book, Freefall Summer, was published by Charlesbridge Teen.
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