Emma is hardly the typical Canadian teenager. At 16, she’s lived all over the world, thanks to her career diplomat mother, who Emma currently blames for all the latest terrible events in her life: she’s in yet another new country – this time Pakistan with some of the highest security risks for foreigners – and without the comfort of her father who has chosen to stay behind in the Philippines and start a new life with the former family maid.
On her first day at her Islamabad international school, Emma literally falls into the arms of a “gorgeous godlike creature,” Mustapha, as she trips off the school van, but her awe is short-lived when she’s challenged by his girlfriend, Aisha, who happens to be the queen bee everyone worships, or at least obeys. Unable to control her embarrassed anger, Emma egregiously blurts out in answer to Mustapha’s friendly question about his beloved country, “‘Well … there’s not a single mall, movie theater, or Caramel Frappuccino within a thousand miles, but there are huge poisonous reptiles, beggars on every street corner, and all the atmosphere of a maximum-security penitentiary. I’m just surprised there’s not more tourism.'” Uh-oh.
So much for first impressions! Not just for Emma, but for the reader, as well – the first few chapters couldn’t be filled with more hackneyed clichés (running off with the near-illiterate Asian maid because high-power Mommy had no time for emasculated Daddy? oh, puh-leeeeze!). Cringe, much?
But, wait! Patience will be rewarded. Really. Chalk off the wobbly start to a debut author’s inexperience because S.J. Laidlaw actually delivers quite the action packed, emotionally effective first novel. Emma finds good friends, including an older sage-like gentleman who teaches her how to make perfect chai, survives harrowing events, learns a thing or two about personal responsibility, and finally reigns in some of her bitter anger to repair her most important relationships.
Laidlaw’s back flap bio reveals she “has worked as a counselor in many countries and has led workshops for parents and educators on raising and working with third-culture children.” Perhaps channeling all her peripatetic experiences, she throws in everything but the proverbial kitchen sink here – arranged marriage, heroic servants, an “ice princess” with a heart of gold for homeless children, living in a constant war zone, burnt-out luxury cars, dog-murder – and somehow succeeds rather gloriously in crafting a compelling, resonating novel about coming of age in a land far, far away. Really.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult