January 14, 2019

The Beauty of the Moment

Written by Tanaz Bhathena
Penguin Teen Canada
384 pp.
Ages 12+
February 2019
Reviewed from advance reader's edition

They say that those who look to the past are often saddened, those who look to the future only are anxious and those who stay in the present are content. While this is tremendously oversimplified, it could describe the experiences of seventeen-year-old Susan Foster who has immigrated from Saudi Arabia with her parents to Mississauga. Actually, although her father, whom she calls Appa, came with them to purchase a condo and a car, arranged for driving lessons for Susan and registration for school, and generally got Susan and Amma established, he has returned to Jeddah to his work as a doctor, hopeful of soon joining them permanently. So, except for regular Skype visits and phone calls to friends and family, Susan and Amma are left to navigate their new lives in Canada essentially alone.

While Alisha, her best friend in Jeddah, insists Susan is lucky to be in Canada, away from dating restrictions, Susan sees the complexity of her new situation. She will be living alone with her mother, a woman who focuses only on Susan's academic excellence and is bitter that they've moved essentially for Susan's education, and away from Appa who seemed more amenable to Susan's artistic proclivities.
In Jeddah, my father played the role of a buffer, the water to my mother's fire, a tree that bent to her wind instead of resisting its pressure. (pg. 75)
Though Susan has always excelled at school, she is learning that she is much better at rote and memorization than at interactive learning like labs and even her driving lessons. And not doing well is not an option, especially as Appa is directing her to medical school and Amma to engineering. She can't even tell them that what she dreams about is going to art school.

And then there are the boys. Actually there is one boy, Malcolm Vakil, who has caught Susan's eye, as she has caught his. Dealing with the death of his mother and a father who is abusive and cheated on his mother, Malcolm turned his grief and anger into behaviours his teachers and father see as problematic. But, though he's had a history of sneaking out, drinking and smoking, doing drugs and dating the beautiful but capricious Afrin Patel, Malcolm finds himself drawn away from those behaviours and towards Susan.

The Beauty of the Moment, told in alternating chapters from Susan and Malcolm's perspectives, focuses on the merging of two teens' stories, rich with back stories and future ambitions. Because their story is neither straightforward nor uncomplicated, exactly as life is, The Beauty of the Moment takes the reader backwards, sideways and in circles as the two may or may not find their way to each other and contentment in their family situations.

Tanaz Bhathena rocketed onto the YA CanLit scene in 2018 with her debut novel A Girl Like That (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018) that captured the tragedies of a Saudi teen's relationship with a boy in a place of gender inequality and religious restrictions. By moving this story to Mississauga, while tethering it to Saudi Arabia via Alisha and Appa, Tanaz Bhathena expands her story to one of immigration and cultural contrast.  Yet The Beauty of the Moment is still a story of teens because Susan and Malcolm could be any teens, dealing with family, school, dating and considering their futures. Their stories are just more complicated because of cultural expectations.

Still it is the way Tanaz Bhathena tells their stories, imbuing them with the distinction of their situations and with the eloquence of voice and thought, that uplifts the plot. It may be titled The Beauty of the Moment, but the book makes sure to see that the lifetime beyond the moment helps create that beauty. There are former lives that we think were better but also hold uncomfortable memories. There is the future which generates dread but holds the promise of opportunity and change.
"Nothing lasts forever," I say. "Not this snowflake. Not our homes, not our families. But it doesn't mean you can't live in the beauty of the moment." (pg. 221)
It's being mindful of that moment and all the beauty it entails that brings contentment, and that's what Susan and Malcolm ultimately attain. That's a beautiful thing.

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