Dear Tashie Bhuiyan,
Last year I enjoyed your debut, Counting Down with You, a YA contemporary about a Bangladeshi-American high school student’s struggle with anxiety, demanding and controlling parents, and falling in love with a white boy. I liked it enough to request an ARC of your second book, A Show for Two.
A Show for Two is also an #ownvoices (Bangladeshi-American) YA that focuses on a teenager’s difficulties with abusive parents and her need for a healthier and better environment, a mental illness (depression, in this case), and a romance. In this book, to get out from under her parents Mina Rahman must win the Golden Ivy film competition–her ticket to USC, where she wants to study filmmaking.
Winning the competition is difficult. Each year her school has entered they have lost despite having strong material. Mina and her best friend Rosie, a fellow filmmaking buff, feel that some of the other schools had an advantage that was almost impossible to overcome—a celebrity playing a role in their competition entry. Without being able to cast a well-known actor, their school doesn’t have much shot at the prize, and the prize means everything. Without a scholarship and admission to USC, Mina will be trapped.
At a film club meeting, Grant, a student who has a crush on Mina, approaches her and Rosie, but Mina cuts him off before he can get much out. She is not interested in Grant and wishes that he wasn’t interested in her, and moreover, after having to deal with a conflict with her mom that morning, she is in a bad mood.
Later, on her way home from school, Mina is caught in the rain. She is hurrying to the subway station when she crashes into another teen. Her phone goes flying and his falls into a puddle. The boy gets mad, accusing her of angling for a picture, and tells her that she could stand to be a little less desperate. Understandably, Mina is furious, and she’s equally rude and sarcastic. She remains defensive even when he begins to catch on to her vulnerability and, when it seems he won’t move out of her way, shoves her shoulder into his to push past him (this last I had a much bigger problem with).
From there Mina goes to a nearby deli—her father asked her to pick up a few things on the way home. The stranger comes in to buy a map, and when he takes a picture, she thinks he’s following her and accuses him of taking her picture. He is not, but even after realizing it Mina thinks “I promptly decide that I am not dealing with this today. I’ve hit my threshold of bullshit.” The boy tries to buy her a new umbrella in a presumptuous way, and she tells him to piss off. Another girl tries to approach him and he cuts her off. After one more argument with the boy, Mina tells him to get fucked.
But there are some real reasons for the boy’s behavior, as Mina realizes later, when she finally recognizes him. He is an up-and-coming movie star, Emmitt Ramos, who mistook her for a rabid fan. He thought she’d recognized him and had crashed into him on purpose, and the other girl had actually recognized him, heightening his need to get away.
The next day Emmitt appears in Mina’s school, and she realizes he must be there undercover, preparing for a role. Emmitt isn’t American (he has a British accent) and before he takes on the role of a teenaged superhero in a movie that’s expected to be a blockbuster, he has to learn what American high schools are like.
Emmitt is sitting in the back of her Italian class and Mina clues Rosie in to his identity. When he spots Mina he gives her a condescending look and Mina, insulted, asks the teacher if the new student could introduce himself in Italian. Emmitt doesn’t know any Italian, and he has to leave immediately.
(Grant goes with him, clarifying that Grant’s father, a producer, is involved in Emmitt’s presence in the area and that at the film club meeting, if she had let Grant finish, Mina would have realized that was trying to tell her that this could be an opportunity to recruit Emmitt for the school’s film.)
Rosie asks Mina to apologize to Emmitt and ask him to help them out by acting in their movie, so Mina does, through gritted teeth. Emmitt easily sees through that, and he tells her he’s not interested.
Later, though, having possibly overheard a conversation where Mina offered sincere advice to another girl with controlling parents, Emmitt approaches Mina with a suggestion. He reveals that he is a photographer and offers to help her out if she will show him around New York and take him to the places where he might get the best photographs.
So. I didn’t like this book nearly as much as I did Counting Down with You, and I didn’t get past the 25% mark. At the top of my list of reasons is Mina’s behavior. I had the feeling that Mina’s rudeness (and given that this includes deliberate physical contact, there’s a good case to be made that it goes beyond rudeness) to Emmitt was supposed to set up the chemistry between them, but for the most part it just made me dislike her. Sure, Emmitt was rude too, but at least he tried, in however arrogant a way, to make amends.
Also, even after learning that the reasons for his behavior weren’t as unsound as she had thought, Mina decided to get some revenge. Yes, Emmitt cast her a very condescending look in Italian class. But it was only a look, and Mina nearly exposed him in retaliation. He was undercover for reasons already having to do with his job in an important role, and she knew that he was leery of fans and wouldn’t want that kind of attention. It felt like a power play, like Mina showing him that she held something over his head, and that didn’t end her to me.
Further, Emmitt wasn’t the only one she was rude to, she also disregarded Grant. And Grant had given her no reason beyond having a crush on her and trying to talk to her. Grant was not a bad person. He was actually trying to help her out, but she wasn’t interested in talking to him.
At one point Mina is brusque with her friend Rosie also. And even when she sets out to apologize to Emmitt for her (really pretty awful) behavior in Italian class, her apology is anything but genuine. I thought she came across as harsh, judgmental, hardened and cold.
If the interplay between Mina’s behavior and her home life had been looked at with any depth or portrayed with complexity, I would have been on board. But Mina’s narration seemed to use her depression and her parents’ emotional abuse as a simplistic excuse. This really chafed me because plenty of people have been through abuse and depression and are still polite and often kind to others.
I don’t feel (speaking from personal experience) that depression forestalls people from treating others well. Generally speaking, people retreat into sadness and isolation, as well as passivity, when they are experiencing depression. None of this fit Mina and so she simply came across as a jerk with an off-putting personality.
I would not necessarily have minded her personality and behavior had I felt that the author was placing Mina on an emotional journey toward growth and greater understanding of others, but the 25% of A Show for Two I read didn’t have that vibe. It had a straightforward “What you see is you get” approach to writing, and Mina’s stance that her home life and her depression justified her behavior felt like one that the book shared. I felt that her not so great behavior was being written off.
It’s harder for me to speak to Emmitt’s characterization because I hadn’t seen that much of him by the time I quit the book a quarter of the way through. I can say that I wasn’t taken with him in any way. Addressing Mina as “love” here and there didn’t make him sexy. But though his opinion of himself seemed a little too high, he also didn’t seem that bad.
My favorite character in the book was Anam, Mina’s sister, and I wished the whole book was about her. Anam was younger than Mina by a couple of years or so, and she was just as passionate about volleyball as Mina was about filmmaking. Anam, like Mina, had to live under the demands of difficult and controlling parents, but unlike Mina, she was friendly and spirited in an appealing way. She didn’t kowtow to their parents, but it also didn’t keep her from being a likable person. Mina’s supportiveness of Anam was by far her best quality.
Rosie was an okay character, mostly a sounding board and source of support, though it did seem she had a crush on another girl. Grant was treated as a nonentity not only by Mina but to a lesser extent also by the book itself, in the section that I read.
Mina’s parents seemed too similar to Karina’s parents in Counting Down with You. Their characterization offered little that was new, and I had the feeling that the book was going to be focused around the same theme—being trapped with abusive parents and needing to get away. It’s a compelling concept but in the 25% I read it, nothing new was added to what I saw in the earlier book.
Then, too, I didn’t buy the idea that Mina’s school had to win the Golden Ivy competition for her to escape her parents’ abuse. There is more than one way to get away from home. Many of them are difficult, but winning the Golden Ivy wasn’t going to be easy either, yet Mina fixed on that one to the exclusion of all others.
And why did Emmitt need Mina to guide him to places where he could take good photographs? The strength of a photograph relies on a lot of things besides setting. Artistic elements like composition, light, contrast, color vividness, and catching moments that evoke emotion in the viewer are more important. It’s my opinion that a captivating photograph can be taken almost anywhere. Even if Emmitt felt differently then surely he could have looked up other great photographers’ pictures taken in New York rather than saddled himself to someone who had treated him unkindly.
Ultimately, though, it was Mina who made this book so hard for me to read. I have read worse books, but this one chafed me more than some of them. I can understand that hardening one’s heart and treating others with callousness or a short temper can be defense mechanisms, but I feel that they should still be portrayed as not so great, and that was missing here. DNF.