You Exist Too Much | REVIEW

Review: You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat AceOfBens.com

I'm aware I can be exhausting — "you exist too much," my mother often told me.

You Exist Too Much is a complicated story about complicated characters, bouncing between the past and present as the protagonist spends years connecting the dots on why she feels so broken. Arafat doesn’t clean up the protagonist’s story to make it more palatable, and I think that’s, for one, why I saw so many people gave this book a mid-star rating, and for two, why it objectively works so well.

The unnamed main character’s life is one big cycle of self-sabotage, and frankly, it’s frustrating to read. Even when she consciously tries to improve, communicates her needs, and consults her friends for advice, she continues to slip into self-destructive patterns of chasing unattainable love, whether with a straight married female professor, a worker at her treatment center, or a man who has cheated but promises it won’t happen again. There were plenty of times I was screaming in my head, “NO! Don’t do it!!”

The flashbacks of growing up traveling between Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and the US with her mother’s high expectations, a rather distant father, and cousins who don’t even welcome her into the family, all give context to why this protagonist’s life has resulted in her check-in to a treatment center that diagnoses her with a love addiction and eating disorder. 

There is much more to this book, and my review isn’t doing it justice (winter brain fog 😩) It’s a deeply layered story that feels disjointed at times, but only until it click just how clear a reflection of the human condition it is. It probably won’t fit your own life detail to detail! But the heart of these experiences will resonate.

[Spoiler ahead] I love that Arafat wraps up the story with a revelation about trauma and the way it crashes down through generations. This is literary fiction, not a romance (which is most of what I read these days), so rather than setting up the narrator for a concrete happy ending, she sits her in the middle of a breakthrough and in a position of hope, letting the reader wonder if this will be the time she finally turns it all around.

On a hot day in Bethlehem, a 12-year-old Palestinian-American girl is yelled at by a group of men outside the Church of the Nativity. She has exposed her legs in a biblical city, an act they deem forbidden, and their judgement will echo on through her adolescence. When our narrator finally admits to her mother that she is queer, her mother's response only intensifies a sense of shame: "You exist too much," she tells her daughter.

Told in vignettes that flash between the U.S. and the Middle East--from New York to Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine--Zaina Arafat's debut novel traces her protagonist's progress from blushing teen to sought-after DJ and aspiring writer. In Brooklyn, she moves into an apartment with her first serious girlfriend and tries to content herself with their comfortable relationship. But soon her longings, so closely hidden during her teenage years, explode out into reckless romantic encounters and obsessions with other people.

Her desire to thwart her own destructive impulses will eventually lead her to The Ledge, an unconventional treatment center that identifies her affliction as "love addiction." In this strange, enclosed society she will start to consider the unnerving similarities between her own internal traumas and divisions and those of the places that have formed her.

Opening up the fantasies and desires of one young woman caught between cultural, religious, and sexual identities, You Exist Too Much is a captivating story charting two of our most intense longings: for love, and a place to call home.

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