Welcome (or welcome back) to Books Before Boys, a misnomer of a book review column (“Books Before Literally Anyone Because I’m Aromantic and Asexual” just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it) in which I, Ann Zhao, head news editor, forgo my news responsibilities and tell you about a book I think you should read.
This week, we’re talking about “How to Excavate a Heart.”
I don’t care for the holiday season. I don’t like dogs. I don’t like oddly specific fields of science (unless they’re linguistics). So you might be wondering why I decided to read a book about a paleoichthyology lab intern living in Washington, D.C. for winter break who falls in love with the owner of a corgi she’s been walking while her housemate, the usual dog-walker, is gone for the holidays. (Oh, also, they’re both Jewish, which I am not.)
And to that, I say: it was gay.
I’m just kidding. Everything about this book is actually incredibly endearing, and you will fall in love with this book faster than Shani and May fall in love with each other. (It only takes them, like, three weeks. Lesbians move fast, etc.)
Regular readers of this column will know by now that I love a good love story. A proper romcom has to have a few elements for me to enjoy it: a perfect sense of humor, a third-act breakup that actually adds to the story, characters I can easily love and a certain unexplainable charm to the whole thing. Jake Maia Arlow’s YA debut manages to capture all those details and more.
I cannot remember the last time I felt such a wide range of emotions while reading a book. Arlow has perfected the art of putting the “com” in “romcom” (but rest assured, the “rom” part does not disappoint). Shani and May’s interactions and Shani’s inner monologue are seriously incredible, and the situations that Shani ends up in will make you laugh, cringe and quite possibly cry.
Also, I should probably actually talk about the romantic plotline! I will not name names, but I recently read a book where the main couple had zero chemistry whatsoever, and Shani and May were a breath of fresh air. They’re absolutely adorable. Their conversations are chock full of banter. You will be begging for them to kiss before they actually do, and then when they do, you’ll probably cheer out loud and then feel very embarrassed that you had such a visceral reaction to a bunch of words on a page.
Maybe I lied a little when I said I didn’t care for the holiday season. This book made me look forward to it. No, I am not going to have a whirlwind romance with a girl my mom almost kills when we first arrive in town while it’s snowing, but this book did make me crave a warm mug of hot chocolate and a fun snowball fight.
Above all else, Arlow manages to capture a distinct, awkward, mistake-filled part of the queer experience that I crave more of in YA novels. Shani is a hot mess, and I love that about her. She fights with her mom, she doesn’t know how to interact with her crush and she shares a little too much with her lab coworker about her burgeoning love life. But she’s trying her best.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I will be hanging posters around the College’s bulletin boards to advertise this book. Yes, I will actually be doing that. Also, I think that means I’ll have to do that to advertise my own book in, like, a year. God, that’s terrifying.
Before reading this book, do have a look at content warnings. Particularly, while the tone of this book is overall lighthearted, there are references to the main character’s past experience with sexual assault.
“How to Excavate a Heart” comes out Nov. 1, 2022. Many thanks to HarperTeen for the early copy (and to Jake for letting me blow up your DMs while I was reading).