“You exist too much.”
These are the words uttered by the mother of Zaina Arafat’s protagonist in You Exist Too Much, and thus loosely encapsulate the strife of the young Palestinian-American woman. She exists too much—she disappoints her mother too much, she seeks love too much, she self-sabotages too much.
You Exist Too Much’s narrator is a twenty-six-year-old woman living in New York City with her girlfriend and working as a DJ. After she attempts to come out as bisexual to her mother and eventually things go awry with her girlfriend, this narrator seeks out a rehabilitation facility in order to cope with what she discovers is a love addiction.
Throughout this novel, we follow her healing journey at rehab and life afterwards, and as she revisits memories of her childhood and adolescence between the United States and Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine, the reader learns more about her trauma, including inter-generational cycles of abuse and her past eating disorder. This book is meandering, reflective, and melancholy, and it speaks from the aching heart.
Although the mood was quite somber, this was quite a “real,” likable read. I believe that fans of Normal People by Sally Rooney would greatly enjoy this book, because, while they deal with quite different matters, You Exist Too Much embodies a similar sense of “ceaselessly wandering yet never arriving.”
Keep reading to learn more about my opinions on the writing, the characters, and the plot! No spoilers contained!
What I Liked
“Binit!” Noir had responded. “Girl!” She’d been insulted by the question, the uncertainty it revealed. But not me. Not that day. Wearing my uncle’s baggy trousers, I enjoyed occupying blurred lines. Ambiguity was an unsettling yet exhilarating space.Page 5
For a contemporary adult fiction book to be good, the writing needs to meet the bar: gritty, poignant, moody, conflicted, ambling. You Exist Too Much performs well in this regard. The tone was reminiscent of the coming-of-age young adult novels I used to read, yet matured and concentrating mostly on college and post-college life. “I’d finally graduated, but had no idea what I wanted to do,” the narrator writes on page 98, and I believe that there is a large portion of readers who will read that and think, “Me, neither.” That’s part of the delight of reading this book for me, was to feel like the narrator’s peer or confidante.
Additionally, I thought the the representation of the narrator being a Palestinian-American caught between two cultures was executed well. I enjoyed exploring how she felt, how she always yearned for the country she was away from, how she felt guilty at times for not being at the West Bank “volunteering with refugees or resisting the occupation, or at least something related to [her] heritage” (page 101). Having grown up and spent most of her life in the United States, the only times she’s been to her family’s homeland is during summer vacations and special trips.
Above all, I longed for the smell of the jasmine flowers that were outside every apartment building, though curiously I hardly noticed them while I was there. It seemed I could only ever smell them from thousands of miles away.Page 119
Because the main character is bisexual, there is strong sapphic representation in this story, which I believe was written very well. While she has always been bisexual, the protagonist often realizes her own internalized heteronormative ideals in how she feels like being married to a man means “success,” compared to the alternatives. By the end, it portrays how her parents have influenced her emotional patterns.
This is the type of novel which features an imperfect protagonist and the complicated relationship she has with her mother, which illustrates the cyclical nature of mental illness within families. The narrator self-sabotages, makes poor decisions, and struggles to find the right path. The novel’s free form structure makes for an ambling, pensive recollection, and I believe that many readers will find companionship in this story.
On the Other Hand…
While I appreciate the ambiguity surrounding the narrator’s name, I certainly wish I at least had a nickname for her, because it’s a bit tedious to tiptoe around this blurred identity with cumbersome phrases like, “the protagonist.” (Perhaps I should bestow her with my own nickname.)
Additionally, while I have no problem with the rambling timeline and was able to follow along with the wandering vignettes, it is very all-over-the-place, and sometimes I wondered, “Where is this going?” It’s not a fast-paced novel, which isn’t a problem at all, but just know ahead of time that this is more of a character study during a transformative year in the narrator’s life.
I’ve seen that some readers were displeased with the characterization of the narrator being a love addict because they felt it was a stereotypical and negative portrayal of bisexuals. However, I don’t think that the narrator’s love addiction was ever written in a way that implied it was caused by her bisexuality (or vice versa), but rather that they were somewhat unrelated facts to one another. Bisexual by nature, a love addict by nurture.
This is a strong contemporary adult fiction novel, so if this is a genre that you normally enjoy, I would recommend this book to you. If you’re looking to read a more diverse book, this one checks a lot of boxes. Great writing, lifelike characters, foggy plot. This was a very good debut novel and I’d be excited to read more from this author!
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