What do you do when your parents think you're bulimic, your little sister thinks you're a thief, the boy you love thinks you're not into him at all—and they're all wrong?
Sangeet Jumnal, the heroine of What I Meant..., is a fifteen-year-old who can't get her family to believe her. In this debut young adult novel, she pulls through with humor and courage.
Some of the main characters are ethnic and the book includes interesting touches of Indian culture, but it's not about being Indian or even about being bi-racial. Sang is a normal American teenager, with an Indian father, and that's one of the book's strongest points. The author skillfully weaves modern young adult problems with colorful detail about family life in a small town. The town, however, is not fictional. It's Doylestown, where I live with my family, another reason I loved this book. My kids hung out there, just like Sang and her pals Gina (who is Chinese-American,) Dalton and Jason. They wrestle with issues like grades, popularity and high school cliques. They worry about the myriad of bewildering choices facing teens today, including alcohol, Goth attire and body piercing. The girls, especially, are fully-developed characters with brains and personality. When they devote too much time to teen gossip magazines and worry about getting boyfriends, some of them even think it's funny. In other words, they are real and likeable young women.
After the first few pages, I couldn't put the book down. It's easy reading while still leaving you with thought-provoking questions. Can the "stuff they believe in India," as Sang says, "like respecting your elders even if they're complete jerks," cause problems? Can wanting to rescue a friend land you in unforeseen danger?
You might guess that this is exactly what happens to Sang. Her evil aunt moves in and plants evidence against her that's hard to disprove. And after lying to her parents once, Sang gets in deeper as she hides in the bathroom to avoid them. Like many adults, they misinterpret the actions of teens. This time they suspect she's bulimic. Now she can't ask for a second helping of dinner without being sent to a psychologist for evaluation, who happens to be the mother of her friend Gina. Gina has some observations herself about being the daughter of two psychologists. The situation is written with humor and respect for all parties, young, old and in between.
The author clearly knows her stuff. She writes from the first person point of view. Nobody under 18 uses the phone, and all plans are made on the computer, via e-mail or instant messaging. The author has two daughters close in age to the two sisters in the novel, and is married to a native of India. She has traveled widely in the Indian subcontinent, and her book is enriched by her intimate knowledge of family structure and tradition.
If you have a young teen or were one yourself, pick up a copy. It's fun, it's fast and it will leave you with some questions you'll want to discuss with the nearest young adult.
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