28 days without parents, curfews, or constant scrutiny? This is a dream for most South Asian kids. Don’t get me wrong, we love our family and our parents, but sometimes the sweet taste of freedom and the thrill of rebellion is a not-so-secret wish for those who have grown up with stifling expectations and restrictions. That’s the premise of Counting Down With You by debut author Tashie Bhuiyan.
In the novel, Karina, a Bangladeshi American teenager, is offered a golden 28 days of freedom when her parents visit Bangladesh leaving her and her brother behind in the US. Karina is excited to wear what she wants and be her true self without inhibitions, but what she doesn’t count on was an opportunity – or rather obligation – to tutor the school’s resident bad boy and enter into a fake relationship with him that turns all her plans upside down.
Reading this was so much fun, but also rather poignant. Karina’s anxiety and her complicated relationship with her parents are at the heart of the story, and it’s dealt with such aching understanding. Karina wants to study English, but her parents refuse to even consider it as an option. After all, what pathway is there for a good smart South Asian kid if not for medicine, engineering, or law? Personally, I’ve had wonderful parents who supported my decision to major in English and my dream to become a writer, but it was also at the cost of so much doubt, anxiety, and months of reassuring. The portrayal of Karina’s anxiety is also so close to my heart, and Bhuiyan does a great job of juxtaposing it with the way that mental health is such a taboo in South Asian society even now.
But Karina is not left without her support systems. I absolutely loved her relationship with dadu (her paternal grandmother) who comes to live with her and her brother while her parents are gone. Dadu is a force of nature, and made me yearn for a presence like her in my own life (I have no living grandparents, and loving grandparents are always my Achilles heel).
I also really liked her brother’s presence in the story, Bhuiyan establishes the gender disparities in South Asian homes without essentially villainizing Samir. The boy child is always treated better, and sometimes it’s so instinctual that the preferences aren’t individual but systemic. This is why Karina – or the story – never blames or gets mad at Samir, and for his own part, he’s privileged in a way where he fails to understand the implications of some of his actions or even the natural preference he enjoys compared to his sister. Karina’s friends are the absolute best – fiercely supportive and loyal, and their love for her is a pillar in her own fight for her happiness.
Having said all that, Counting Down With You is not a somber book about identity and familial relationships alone. The soul of the book is the adorable and swoony romance. Tashie Bhuiyan takes some of the most beloved tropes we’ve all grown up reading and gives them a fresh spin. Will I ever be tired of bad boy heroes and fake dating tropes? Never.
Ace stole my heart almost immediately, with his easy charm and aching vulnerability. This is a bad boy with a golden heart, and at one point you realize that there’s actually nothing “bad” in him. His own insecurities with his family are such an interesting contrast to Karina’s, but they are not dismissed in any way either. Their romance is trope-y in the best way possible, but it is also soft and cheerful, devoid of unnecessary theatrics or dramatics. Ace’s cheesy but heartwarming romantic gestures – he buys her books, need I say more? – have set the bar high for me now… yet another book boy who has ruined me for real romance.
Tashie Bhuiyan’s debut novel is breezy and fun, but it’s also extremely tender and full of heart. It understands what it is to be South Asian, to love your family, culture, and religion yet be frustrated by the way they can create boundaries around you and obstruct your dreams. There is no judgement, nothing is black and white – it’s so rare that stories understand the nuances of our lived-in experiences, and Counting Down With You does just that.
There is also something so personal and intimate about this story, it doesn’t try to stand in for a collective experience or preach about what’s good practice. This is Karina’s story and hers alone, told with kind understanding and vulnerability that will touch anyone who’s been there.
The Tempest’s rating: 🌊🌊🌊🌊🌊
Counting Down With You was our Book Club’s book of the month for May 2021. Check out the first chapter of the book here, as well as an interview with author Tashie below. Stay tuned for another AMA with Tashie soon!
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