The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhathena

Review by Louise Brecht

Penguin Teen Canada, Penguin Random House, 2019

288 pages, hardcover, $21.99 CDN, 9780735263741, ebook 9780735263758

Ages 12+, Grades 7+

Young Adult, Contemporary Realism, Romance

It does not matter that Malcolm and I share skin tones. Everything about him screams Canadian, from the way he speaks to the way he dresses to the self-assurance with which he walks. Malcolm belongs here as much as I don’t and probably never will.

Émigré Susan Thomas is intrigued by desi boy Malcolm Vakil. She wants to fit in the way he does: to her new country, her new city—Mississauga, Ontario—and especially to her new school. Arthur Eldridge High is a world away from her last institution in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and even farther from the family’s home base in India, but her parent’s decree that Susan complete her senior year in Canada is absolute. Convinced that the experience will open the door to advanced studies in medicine or engineering, the expats refuse to believe that their daughter’s future hopes and dreams hinge on her passion for art. Susan’s adjustment, already difficult by virtue of her father’s continued absence and her mother’s growing resentment of him, is further complicated by her unexpectedly electric response to the hell-raiser she meets in Emil Zuric’s university-level English class. She’s drawn to his brown skin that’s so much like her own, to the set of his jaw, to brown eyes that are threaded with shards of grey, and to his practiced ease with most people. Malcolm tempts Susan to rebel in ways she’s never considered before.

He is just as surprised by his attraction to Susan. After all, Malcolm is still reeling from an ugly breakup with Godafrin Irani, the girl of his dreams. He has also come face-to-face with his old nemesis, Zuric, the teacher who set Malcolm’s father against him after he lost his mother to cancer, and tore apart what was left of his world. His grades and life at home—except for the soft spot he has for his activist sister Mahtab—are anything but idyllic. So he relishes any revenge he can get in Zuric’s class, and isn’t prepared for the spark Susan strikes in him—or for the way he wants to help smooth the transition from her old world to his own.

Each of the principal characters voices a first-person perspective that author Tanaz Bhathena weaves into a composite whole in a seamlessly alternating pattern. In many ways, the essential plot follows the tried and true trajectory of romantic conflict, but the consummate skill with which Bhathena integrates the teens’ behaviours into those of an exquisitely well-developed cast of supporting characters lifts this above the girl-meets-boy standard. Her release of information is smooth, tied more to the actions and reactions of her story’s collective players than it is to narratorial exposition.

Susan’s ongoing conversations with Alisha, her BFF in Jeddah, clearly contrast old constraints with new-found freedoms at the same time as they delineate the difficulties of transition. The conduct of the boys who round out Malcolm’s social triumvirate—class clown Steve Patel and tall handsome Ahmed Sharif—are pivotal to understanding his place in the social strata they all inhabit. Even antagonist Afrin, whose ego and possessive instincts are roused by Malcolm’s growing interest in Susan, is a multi-dimensional character. Family is crucial to both protagonists; they are a source of discord and pain. Susan’s appears to be disintegrating even as Malcolm’s sister and his stepmother struggle to reorder the unit his father’s anger may have destroyed.

The Beauty of the Moment’s contemporary setting lends currency to its examination of all the tensions that surround Susan and Malcolm, and to the cumulative effects they have on their budding romance. Most importantly, as their final year of high school draws to a close, it underscores the difficulties Susan faces in choosing between her parent’s dreams for her future and her own passion for art—and the ones Malcolm must overcome if he wants to realize the fullness of his own distinct potential. This book is a fascinating read. Long after I turned the last page, I found myself considering the nuances of love, of family and culture, of friendship and commitment that exist between its characters. 

Louise Brecht is a Creative Writing and English Literature student at the University of British Columbia. An avid reader and aspiring author, Louise has published works of non-fiction, fiction and poetry in nineteenquestions, Pearls, Collage, and Sweatink.

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