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Review: Forty Words for Love - Aisha Saeed

Genre: YA Magical Realism Published: Penguin Young Readers Group, August 2023

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Forty Words for Love is a Young Adult magical realism novel about two teens exploring their feelings for each other against the backdrop of a once-magical town that lost its sparkle. After I’d finished the first chapter, I was convinced I had a my hands on a 5-star-read. With beautiful writing, a setting that lives up to the vividity of its stunning cover, and the set-up for a slightly melancholic mystery: I was hooked. Unfortunately, I never reached that same excitement of the first 50 pages within the rest of the story, and despite its great ideas and set-up, Forty Words for Love didn’t live up to its full potential.

The Story: Welcome to Moonlight Bay; a place where energy pulses through the air and its people, the bay-waters run lavender in colour and the trees provide a protective roof over the heads of its refugee people. It’s inhabitants are divided in two groups: the townsfolk: who’ve built an industry of tourism off the lands mystical properties, and the Golub; refugees who’ve made their home in the Moonlight Bay forest, after their home was destroyed. When an unexplained tragedy in town strips the land of its magic, it’s energy burns out, its waters run gray, tourists stop coming in, and the townsfolk and Golub begin to fight amongst each other. Prejudice, blame and mistrusts splits the community in half. Nearly ten years later, we follow Yasmine and Rafay, two teens from opposing communities on their search for answers as their forbidden friendship develops into something more.

What I loved: I have a soft-spot for magical realism small-town stories. I think that love was born from The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, and fostered by the works of Anna-Marie McLemore, Katrina Leno’s Summer of Salt and Emmie Ruth Lang’s Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance. Forty Words for Love hit many of the same vibes with its descriptions of Moonlight Bays lavender coloured seas, magical forests and electric energy pulsing through its atmosphere. I could more than picture it: I was transported there. The authors lyrical tone matches the almost dreamlike vibe that lays over the town like a blanket. That first chapter sets up an ambitious, multilayered story with plenty of real-world themes to explore. Themes of immigration, refugee-ship and mistrust for “outsiders” within a tight-knit community are strongly present throughout, as well as the generational conflicts that often come with them as our protagonist teens try to break this separation. I was also interested in the dynamic of this town formerly running off tourism and its natural beauty, now desolate and struggling after this sudden loss of their core attraction. All of this, as the background to a wholesome tale of friendship that slowly grows into more (rather than insta-love!) had the potential for a favourite. If only brilliant set-up had be equally brilliantly developed.

What I didn’t love:

Unfortunately, it’s not. Much of what is set-up remains underdeveloped, including some of the central mysteries and questions. I don’t mind when a novel leaves you the breadcrumbs and has you interpret the answers for yourself, but in this case, some of the major questions just don’t have an answer, despite the story setting us up as if there is one. The more you think about it, the more the worldbuilding starts to fray at the edges too. Moonlight Bay makes sense within its own internal logic, but not within the larger world that’s hinted at. How are they so isolated, despite living off tourism? How is the Golub-rule of never leaving the area viable for generations upon generations? Why are there high-schools and candy-factories in a town with seemingly no more than 100 inhabitants? All those questions individually don’t matter, but combined they break down the illusion and immersion. I wish the book had kept the pacing and consistency of the first chapter, in order to deliver on all its incredible promises. I would’ve happily read a longer novel set within Moonlight Bay, had it meant more depth to its development.

Many thanks to Penguin for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

You can find this book here on Goodreads.


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