Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan
May 4, 2021, by Inkyard Press
Review by Melanie
I don’t find myself reading too much YA but this delightful book made me want to change that. There’s so much I want to say about this book that I’m a little afraid my review might be all over the place. But before I start in on the actual bones of the review, I just want to address one thing really quickly: I related HARD to this book. Maybe it’s because of the similarities in our cultural upbringing – Karina Ahmed is a Bangladeshi American Muslim and I’m an Indian born, American raised Bengali. There were parts of this book that felt almost uncomfortably like I was looking at my own past and things that were also slightly different, like our religion. Regardless of how hard I personally related to this book, I strongly believe there are themes in this book that are universal and I would argue that anyone could find things in this book that are relevant to their own lives and experiences, regardless of their cultural background. Now that we have that out of the way, lets get on with the review.
In an attempt to organize my review into some semblance of cohesion, I’ve decided to break it down by the relationships that Karina has with the different people in her life. They all play an important role in who she is, who she wants to be, and ultimately, who she strives to become.
Karina and Ace
Alistair “Ace” Clyde is the perfect counterpunch to dutiful, good girl Karina, the typical rich bad boy, complete with the quintessential leather jacket and a devil may care attitude to match. Where Karina is constantly striving to please her parents and live up to their expectations of her, Ace has made it his life’s mission to do the complete opposite and live down to his father’s lofty standards. When he finds himself struggling in his English class, an unlikely alliance forms between the quiet, studious Karina and the rebellious, charismatic Ace.
At first glance, they seem to be polar opposites: Karina is all about doing what’s expected, serious, filled with anxiety at disappointing her parents and Ace is all about having fun and determined to live life on his own terms. But there’s more to meets the eye with these two, both of whom are really living reactionary lives in response to their relationships with their respective parents.
And the unlikely romance that blooms between the two is almost ridiculously sweet even when there’s an underlying sense of inevitable doom. Ace, as Karina puts it, woos her, with tutoring sessions over pastries, trips to book stores where he buys her stacks of books, a romantic dinner he cooks for her with the help of his mother, and in one memorable scene, a stargazing date on the back of a pickup truck. My past 16 year old past self would have fallen head over heels in love with Ace’s particular brand of woo and to be honest, my present day 41 year old self was equally charmed. All of these scenes are undercut by the tension that really permeates this whole book: that of Karina’s domineering, overly critical parents. But more on them later.
For me, a good romantic pairing often involves characters who bring out the best in each other, who inspire each other to be brave and do great things and in this, Karina and Ace excel. Each of them makes the other better, stronger, and willing to go after what they really want, whether it be their future dreams or their desire to just be together. While the relationship originally began with Karina tutoring Ace in English, Ace proves himself to be a worthy hero, a soft, nurturing caretaker, not necessarily insisting on slaying Karina’s dragons for her but rather, enabling and encouraging her to slay them on her own. And when all seems lost for Karina, it’s Ace who rides to the rescue with words of hope and wisdom.
We’re only sixteen, Karina. There’s still so much future ahead of us. It’ll be better. You just have to hold on to the strength and bravery I know you already have.
That it’s Ace who gives her the strength and courage to fight for her own happiness is what makes him such a good hero in my book. And the fact that he doesn’t just storm in to do it for her but rather gently pushes her to do it for herself is what makes him a great one.
Karina, Nandini, and Cora
One of the things I absolutely loved about this book was the strong female friendships Karina has with her two best friends. I adored the interaction between them. As I said before, I don’t read a whole lot of YA and sometimes, the characters can come off as overly precocious but here, the three of them hit the perfect notes, varying between girlish enthusiasm and drama queen with bouts of unexpected teenage wisdom that always startle older adults* into realizing the next generation has things well in hand. (*It’s me, I’m the older adult). I love how they always had Karina’s back, the unwavering support but also the moments of disbelief and eye-rolling over Karina’s obliviousness when it came to Ace. They struck the perfect balance of humor and sensitivity and love and it felt very much like the friendships I’ve had in my own life.
Karina and her family
This might well be the most difficult part of the book to deal with. The book starts with Karina’s parents jetting off to Bangladesh to visit her mom’s family while Karina and her younger brother stay home under the care of their paternal grandmother.
The scenes between Karina and her parents resonated on a deeply personal level that sometimes felt almost intrusive and uncomfortable, as if the author had pulled pages out of the story of my own life. As many south Asian children of immigrants can attest, we are brought up with great expectations for our lives…and great guilt if we dare to follow our own path. Karina dreams of pursing a major in English while her parents have dictated that she will get into a premed program and become a doctor. And when she dares to voice her own dreams to her parents, she is met with anger and harsh words calling her a disappointment and selfish. The pressure Karina feels from her parents lead to her struggling with anxiety and she copes by counting down from 10 to 1. The scenes where she suffers anxiety attacks and has to claw her way back out of them feel almost painfully real and so well done that at a certain point, Karina’s panic became my own. But I could also understand her parents even if I disagreed vehemently with them. The idea of immigrant parents sacrificing all for the sake of a better life for their kids is a song I know all too well and Karina’s bone-deep desire to just make her parents happy and proud is also very, very familiar to me.
Everything they’ve asked of me, I’ve given. I’ve given and I’ve given, and I continue to give. But it’s never enough. There’s never a limit to what they ask of me.
While Karina’s relationship with her parents is shaky and full of strife, she does have some family in her corner, including her beloved Dadu (her paternal grandmother) and eventually, her younger brother, Samir. She finds solace and unexpected support from her grandmother which felt strangely and beautifully reminiscent of my own relationship with my late grandmother. It was full of tenderness and unconditional love and also, reading about her grandmother constantly show her love via food was the most on brand thing and made me laugh.
Karina’s younger brother Samir also brought an interesting dynamic to the family relationships. First of all, it’s worth noting that I am an only child and therefore, this was one of the few parts of the book that didn’t personally resonate for me but still, I found it to be accurate. As a boy, Samir gets away with far more and has far more freedoms than his older sister, which seems pretty plausible in a paternalistic society. Their parents are incredibly proud of Samir’s achievements while simultaneously criticizing Karina’s failings and it seems inevitable that Karina feels a deep sense of resentment towards her brother. Samir, in the grand tradition of young teenage boys, seems completely clueless to all of the family dynamics and the favoritism he’s showed. But to his credit, when Karina finally opens up to him about her feelings of despair, he doesn’t blow her off or accuse her of being dramatic, he believes her and he supports her.
I know the book community talks a lot about why representation matters in books. This book, more than any other I’ve read in recent memory, made me feel seen. It made me feel like my lived experiences weren’t unusual and trivial, that even though I may have felt isolated and ostracized at times, I was never truly alone. And I think those are themes that are really universal, regardless of the circumstances of one’s life. In the course of this book, Karina learns that her dreams are valid and that her life is her own and she learns, with a little help from her family and friends, how to stand up for herself and live her own life. And that’s a theme anyone can relate to.
Final Grade – A+
Content Warnings: On page anxiety, homophobia towards minor character, toxic family relationships