Book Review

How To Excavate A Heart

How to Excavate a Heart

  • Author: Jake Maia Arlow
  • Genre: YA Romance
  • Publication Date: November 1, 2022
  • Publisher: HarperTeen

Thank you to YA Books Central and HarperTeen for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. You can find my YA Books Central review here.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: mention of sexual assault (off-page)

It all starts when Shani runs into May. Like, literally. With her mom’s Subaru.

Attempted vehicular manslaughter was not part of Shani’s plan. She was supposed to be focusing on her monthlong paleoichthyology internship. She was going to spend all her time thinking about dead fish and not at all about how she was unceremoniously dumped days before winter break.

It could be going better.

But when a dog-walking gig puts her back in May’s path, the fossils she’s meant to be diligently studying are pushed to the side—along with the breakup.

Then they’re snowed in together on Christmas Eve. As things start to feel more serious, though, Shani’s hurt over her ex-girlfriend’s rejection comes rushing back. Is she ready to try a committed relationship again, or is she okay with this just being a winter fling?

I’ve heard good things about this book, and I was really excited to read it. Even though it’s well past the holiday season, I felt a little better because we actually got our first snow accumulation while I read this, so I guess it all worked out in the end?

First of all, this book is nearly 400 pages long, and I flew through it. At no point did it feel anywhere close to that long, and it wound up being a super fast read for me. The writing just flows beautifully, and it’s easy to get through it quickly.

This book initially came onto my radar because it features a queer, Jewish MC. I was so happy to see that the LI is also Jewish, and the Jewish representation is so front and center throughout the story despite the fact that it takes place during Christmas, rather than focusing strictly on Chanukah. 

The story opens with Shani, immediately post-breakup with her first girlfriend, on winter break. She’s using the time off from school to intern at a lab in the Smithsonian, under a researcher that she basically idolizes, and she’s looking forward to it. But there’s clearly tension between her and her mother, and while Shani is aware of it and doesn’t feel good about it, she can’t quite stop herself from engaging in it.

At first, it’s hard to like who Shani is when she’s with her mother. She’s angry and rude and kind of obnoxious. But once she gets to DC and is on her own, we get to know who she really is, and she becomes much more likable. She’s struggling with her feelings about the breakup, and while her friends know that she’s queer, she hasn’t come out to her mother. And now, she’s in a house with two other roommates and an elderly landlady, all of whom she doesn’t quite feel comfortable coming out to. One of the roommates was a Russian immigrant and the other was a Black woman, and Shani’s lab mentor is a queer brown Hindu woman, which was nice, since it adds another layer of diversity to the story. And my favorite character, hands down, would have to be Raphael the corgi, who appears in a bunch of scenes and is always adorable.

But when Shani crosses paths with May again, it brings up a lot of issues for her. They have a clear enemies to lovers dynamic going on, and I loved watching the interactions between them change into something less antagonistic and more of an actual relationship. While there’s definitely some of the miscommunication trope in the story, it’s more of an emotional block holding them back from talking about what is really going on. For Shani, she realizes the importance of discovering who she really is, both on her own and in a relationship, and maintaining that independent self even if she’s in a couple:

“She went to college and tried to become her own person and I lost myself. I went from being “Taylor and Shani” to “Sadie and Shani.” My name always seems to have a mother one before it.”

This was a fantastic story, and I truly loved every minute of reading this. The character development was amazing, and it felt so true to life. It almost felt as if I was walking through DC with the characters, and the description of the Metro station in DC brought back vivid memories of the time I went there. I especially loved the way that this story took place over Christmas while still holding space for Jewish characters, and exploring how they felt about being in a society that tends to be overwhelmed by the Christmas season. 

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