4.5 star, YA

ARC Review: Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan

A reserved Bangladeshi teenager has twenty-eight days to make the biggest decision of her life after agreeing to fake date her school’s resident bad boy.
How do you make one month last a lifetime?

Karina Ahmed has a plan. Keep her head down, get through high school without a fuss, and follow her parents’ rules—even if it means sacrificing her dreams. When her parents go abroad to Bangladesh for four weeks, Karina expects some peace and quiet. Instead, one simple lie unravels everything.

Karina is my girlfriend.

Tutoring the school’s resident bad boy was already crossing a line. Pretending to date him? Out of the question. But Ace Clyde does everything right—he brings her coffee in the mornings, impresses her friends without trying, and even promises to buy her a dozen books (a week) if she goes along with his fake-dating facade. Though Karina agrees, she can’t help but start counting down the days until her parents come back.

T-minus twenty-eight days until everything returns to normal—but what if Karina no longer wants it to?



**Counting Down with You comes out May 4, 2021**

Thank you Edelweiss and HarperCollins for this copy in exchange for an honest review

I will first say that I do not know too much about Bangladeshi people and culture except the stories I hear from a good friend of mine in grad school. What I do know is that with every culture, there are hardships and this resonated with me in so many ways. Counting Down with You was the emotional rollercoaster romance story centred around a protagonist I could root for and empathize with at the same time in her struggles to fight for herself. This own-voices story was everything I didn’t know I needed in 2021, and I am ecstatic to have found it.

Karina, nicknamed by her family as Myra, has just waved her parents off for a 1-month stay with relatives in their home country of Bangladesh. While they are gone, she finds the sudden freedom from the harsh restrictions her parents have placed on her with regards to school and social life. Normally, she had a curfew to be back from school – yes, not a night-out curfew but to come home directly from school unless she was in the Pre-Med Society meeting. Even tutoring was frowned upon unless it was for something related to STEM. So English, you can kiss that goodbye. As is already obvious, Karina struggled with the sciences and maths while English was her true passion. The premise of this story draws Karina into the path of bad-boy Ace whom she has to tutor in English at the request of her favourite teacher.

There are so many things I want to exclaim about this wonderful book, but I will try to summarize it into a few different parts.

Family

Now, I can understand a thing or two about parental pressures that are placed on children from immigrant families. The “I’ve-given-everything-up-for-you-so-you-will-succeed” pressure that lives inside us to fulfill. Karina struggled with this immensely, and her anxiety would not allow her to initiate conflicts if they can be avoided. So do her parents know that she doesn’t want to pursue STEM? Maybe not, but you can already imagine the response would not be great.

What makes matters worse was that her younger brother, the robotics genius who wanted to become an engineer, had everything easier as the favoured child, the son. And even more infuriating I wanted to shake him at times in the story was that he was so naive about the difference in treatment between them. How her parents smiled and bragged about his achievements while he showed off his latest robotic creation, while she had to hide away or was literally told what a disappointment she was to them. I very rarely cry in books, but I had tears of frustration and sadness for Karina as I read such parts. What kind of child wants to hear this from their parents, let alone a girl who has only shaped her life to gain their approval and love?

We also learn a lot about family dynamic related to their faith. The restrictions aren’t always related to their beliefs as Muslims – like it says nowhere that you must be a doctor yet her parents upheld that stance pretty high – but I liked that it was something that made up a big part of Karina and her family’s interactions. Theirs were just more strict.

It’s the same way with any culture, any religion. There will always be people who are more traditional, more conservative. Those who carry out beliefs without stopping to think of the meaning behind them, who follow without question.

The biggest upside to family matters was her Dadu, her paternal grandmother. While her parents away, Dadu moved in with them and I absolutely ADORED her. Not only was she not the strict kind of authority figure like her parents, she allowed Karina to get away with some of the things (ie. Stay out after school later) than she would ever have. She was her champion, the one person who was observant enough to notice how miserable and anxiety-riddled Karina was day by day. I’m sure we all would love a grandmother like her, let’s be honest.

Friends

So here we have a protagonist who faces immense pressures to uphold the image of the perfect daughter but is wracked with anxiety and loses herself along the way as she doesn’t fight for her own dreams to major in English in college.

Her best friends, Cora and Nandini, want what’s best for her and they’re a big part of this story. While I may be more like Cora in personality and ability to be more free in my choices, especially staying out with friends or hanging out with boys with no overbearing parental restrictions, I found the pressures they pushed on Karina to fight back at times hurtful as well, backing her into a corner with nowhere to run. Between her parents’ wants and her own wants continuously voiced by her friends, no wonder Karina suffers a lot of anxiety.

Even though I disagreed with the method by which they wanted to give Karina everything she herself wanted, I loved their friendship and the dynamic the 3 of them bring as each is different from the other. Nandini is more reserved and understands the cultural restrictions more as she is Indian. Cora is half-Chinese but with parents who are more modernized in their upbringing, falling less to tradition. Each has a different view to bring because of how they were raised, but this is the beauty of diversity in friendship and the society we live in. I’m so glad these girls did not seem like super carbon-copies of one another and had some individual spunk to them.

Ace, the boyfriend

Last but not least, I have to talk about the fake relationship with resident “bad boy” Ace. He is, by far, the book boyfriend we all want. He’s thoughtful and pays attention to Karina’s needs when everyone else overlooks them, including her best friends sometimes. He is considerate of the differences in Karina’s life compared to his, whether that be his financial stability (his dad’s rich) or the relative lack of parental restrictions for the friends he hangs out with. He is respectful of the boundaries Karina places on their “relationship” and always learning to not cross one once he knows of it. He’s the calm in the storm in her anxiety attacks and this gets me real hard because I know from experience that is what you need when a particularly bad one hits you.

Whatever fake this started as, it quickly didn’t seem so fake to me even soon after this “lie” was told. He said the sweetest things to her that would be cheesy if my boyfriend said that to me, but maybe not so much if he had said that near the beginning. And definitely not when Ace said it.

“If I’m lightning, then what are you?” Already, I can imagine Ace teasing me but instead, he smiles and says, “I’m thunder. I’ll follow you wherever you go.”

While it took some time to warm up to Ace and his antics, he is a total sweetheart. Karina writes beautiful poetry and obviously her growing feelings for him shine through the writing.

The moon falls from the sky.

And a boy rises from the ruins.

Carved by celestial dust.

This was the biggest tension point for making the relationship more real than what they had initiated. Her parents would want her to date and marry a brown, Muslim boy, not some white guy who wears fashionable sweaters underneath his leather jacket (also, what an interesting combo choice). Besides her internal battle to study what she wanted versus her parents’ dream for her, this was the other big headache she had as she counted down the days until they were back. The angst levels were real!

I won’t ruin anything about the ending for anyone – I’m not that kind of person – but I will say not everything is tied up in a neat bow. In a way, I wanted some more closure but I can also understand why Tashie may have left it like this. In real life, things don’t always have the picture perfect ending. People get mad, relationships get broken and take time to mend, the things we want may require time to succeed. While this wasn’t everything I wanted to hear, it was still a really good end to this wonderful story that was more than just about fake dating. I love this trope, but I am happy to say that Counting Down with You brought me a lot more joy from absolutely everything else.

*Note: all quotes subject to change in the published copy

Overall Recommendation:

Fake dating tropes always sucker me in, but Counting Down with You tells of a story more than just a boy and a girl thrown together in a lie. It tells of the immigrant experience in a Muslim, Bangladeshi family, of the balance between our wants and familial expectations. It draws us into the beautiful culture and the importance family plays in it. I didn’t know too much about it before, but now I feel my eyes and heart even more opened. The characters, particularly our Karina, makes you feel with them in the struggle to chase her own dream versus fulfilling the expectations of others to feel loved. I cried, I smiled and I rejoiced with Karina throughout this book and that is very telling of not a good story, but a great one. Please read it when it comes out!

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