Book Review: Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi

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Reviewed by María Dolores Águila

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DESCRIPTION OF BOOK: Fourteen-year-old Iranian-American Parvin Mohammadi sets out to win the ultimate date to homecoming in this heartfelt and outright hilarious debut.

Parvin Mohammadi has just been dumped – only days after receiving official girlfriend status. Not only is she heartbroken, she’s humiliated. Enter high school heartthrob Matty Fumero, who just might be the smoking-hot cure to all her boy problems. If Parvin can get Matty to ask her to Homecoming, she’s positive it will prove to herself and her ex that she’s girlfriend material after all. There’s just one problem: Matty is definitely too cool for bassoon-playing, frizzy-haired, Cheeto-eating Parvin. Since being herself hasn’t worked for her in the past (see aforementioned dumping), she decides to start acting like the women in her favorite rom-coms. Those women aren’t loud, they certainly don’t cackle when they laugh, and they smile much more than they talk.

But Parvin discovers that being a rom-com dream girl is much harder than it looks. Also hard? The parent-mandated Farsi lessons. A confusing friendship with a boy who’s definitely not supposed to like her. And hardest of all, the ramifications of the Muslim ban on her family in Iran. Suddenly, being herself has never been more important.

Olivia Abtahi’s debut is as hilarious as it is heartfelt – a delightful tale where, amid the turmoil of high school friendships and crushes, being yourself is always the perfect way to be.

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MY TWO CENTS: Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi is a hilarious, fun, fast-paced yet surprisingly deep read; long after I read it, I found myself thinking about the themes hidden under the shiny veneer of the Rom-Com label. 

Parvin, pronounced PAR-veen with a hard A, not Par-vin, is about to start high school with a boyfriend she met while playing pranks on the beach during summer vacation, and she can’t wait to flaunt him to her friends, Ruth and Fabián, who may or may not believe he is a delusion. But Wesley is real, and at their high school orientation, he dumps her for being “too much” in front of everyone and the shock leaves her lying on the linoleum, with her friends scrambling to resuscitate her with an empty Hot Cheetos bag. Later, she muses:

Who cared if my friends and family like my ‘amazingness’? If potential boyfriends didn’t, then what was the point? What Wesley told me yesterday was right: I was too much…I was Parvin ‘Loud’ Mohammadi. It seems like everyone knew it but me.” 

After running into Wesley and his perfect new girlfriend, Teighan, who is “everything I was not”, and finding out they are going to Homecoming together, Ruth and Fabián try to cheer Parvin up with an emergency sleepover at which they watch The Little Mermaid, The Princess Bride, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. After watching these films, Parvin “finally cracks the code for why I’d never had a boyfriend before, and why the one I did have dumped me so quickly…I was too chatty for a love story of my own.” Ruth and Fabián try to convince Parvin that she should find someone who likes her the way she is, but Parvin’s set on the idea that she must change herself into a “leading lady” in order to find a new boyfriend and make Wesley regret dumping her. 

She stops wearing the sparkly silver eyeshadow Ameh Sara taught her how to apply via Skype. She stops wearing her favorite clothes. She stops playing pranks and eating Hot Cheetos. She straightens her “…curls that are ‘loud’ in their own way.” She argues with her parents about going to Farsi lessons, even though there’s a cute Iranian boy that seems to like all the things Parvin is trying to change, because she’d rather spend her weekends like a “normal high schooler”.  

The friendship between Parvin, Fabián, and Ruth is the backbone of the story and carries us through the plot to the resolution. Fabián and Ruth are more than just Parvin’s friends – they’re fully realized characters with their own desires, goals, and arcs that intersect, complement, and at times, even oppose Parvin’s. Fabián is a gay Mexican American Tik Tok star who uploads amazing dance videos and whose parents are always busy with their jobs at the Mexican Embassy. Ruth is a pansexual crafter with a demanding Mom who is a professor at Georgetown University, and she’s not sure how to tell her mom about the girl she has a huge crush on. They both urge Parvin to embrace who she is and their friendship becomes strained as Parvin stubbornly clings to the idea that she needs to change. 

A secondary plot is the relationship with Ameh Sara, Parvin’s aunt, who lives in Iran, Skypes with her almost daily, is Parvin’s closest confidant, and is supposed to visit her in the fall. As Parvin’s plans begin unraveling and falling into chaos, Parvin desperately believes that if she can just hold out until Ameh Sara comes to visit her, she can still prevail with her “leading lady” plan. But Trump’s Muslim Ban complicates Ameh Sara’s visit. 

As Parvin gradually and subtly begins losing herself in her quest to become a “leading lady” and snag a date for Homecoming, sacrificing pieces of herself, she must decide: is it worth changing herself for someone else?

Avid romance readers will be able to spot the resolution of various romantic arcs quickly, but it doesn’t take away from the story in the slightest. It still feels fresh, fun, and unexpected.

Where Perfectly Parvin shines is the narrative voice – Parvin’s actions, thoughts, relationships, desires, problems, and mistakes feel authentic and appropriate to that of a fourteen-year-old high school freshman. It was refreshing to read a YA Novel on the younger side of the YA spectrum, especially since around that age, many adolescents are questioning who they are and who they want to be, and Perfectly Parvin explores the answer in all its glorious messiness. Loud, rebellious girls who may not relate to the shy and introverted heroine trope often found in YA literature will connect to Parvin and her struggle to become quiet and demure. There’s something deeply cathartic about reading someone experiencing something you’ve considered doing yourself. 

In the end, the reader is told a powerful message through Ameh Sara, “Just be yourself. I know people always say that, but only you get to decide what that means.” 

In Perfectly Parvin, Olivia Abtahi skillfully explores themes of racial identity, womanhood, family relationships, Western beauty standards, friendship, politics, and first love in a way that never feels heavy-handed or didactic. In fact, it discusses these concepts in such a way that you don’t realize exactly how deep the book is until you’ve finished it and you’re thinking about it later. I highly recommend reading the Author’s Note, as it really ties together why Abtahi made the narrative choices she did. Readers who enjoyed From Little Tokyo with Love by Sarah Kuhn and Made in Korea by Sarah Suk or fans of On My Block and Never Have I Ever on Netflix, will likely be delighted with Perfectly Parvin.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Olivia Abtahi is a film director and writer based in Denver, Colorado. Born to an Iranian father and an Argentine mother, she is a melting pot of distinct cultures. Olivia holds a BFA from NYU’s School for Film and Television, as well as a Masters in advertising from VCU Brandcenter. From print to video to all things online, Olivia enjoys using different mediums to tell better stories for brands, causes, and communities.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: María Dolores Águila is a Chicana writer based in San Diego, California. She writes picture books, middle grade and young adult novels celebrating and exploring the nuances of Chicanx culture and identity. She’s also a moderator of Kidlit Latinx, a writing group dedicated to supporting and amplifying Latinx voices in Children’s Literature. She has a forthcoming picture book coming in 2024. She is represented by Lindsay Auld of Writers House Literary Agency. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.

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