Darius the Great is having a subpar time. His Persian mom raised his younger sister, Laleh, speaking Farsi, but not him, making him feel disconnected from his own culture and heritage. His white dad—blonde hair, blue eyes, strong jawline—is “pretty much the Übermensch,” and seems to disapprove of everything Darius (overweight, overgrown brown curls, acne) does or embodies. The school bullies show up at his minimum-wage job to give him a hard time, and, to top it all off, his parents suddenly announce that they’re going to Iran for the very first time because his grandfather has a brain tumor.
All of Darius’ insecurities and problems—with the exception of the school bullies and minimum-wage job—are amplified by the family’s trip to Iran. While Laleh is lauded by their extended family for being “very Persian”—she loves Persian food and comfortably chatters away in Farsi—Darius feels even more excluded from his family thanks to the language barrier and his social awkwardness. He can’t relate to his cousins, as he understands the world primarily through the twin lenses of Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings. His Persian grandfather doesn’t understand why he takes medication for depression. And his dad seems to be growing more disappointed with his perceived weakness every day.
Even though Darius’ narrative voice is adorkably endearing and authentic to the cringeworthy angst of teenagehood, it’s not the easiest novel to read. This is largely because so much of the novel speaks to the unpleasant side of being mixed-race Persian in America: the microaggressions, the macroaggressions, the various -phobias that are compounded by being clinically depressed, overweight, and LGBTQ+*. In Iran, the other side of Darius’ identity becomes a target: he is too American, too white, too uneducated in his family’s history and Zoroastrian roots. It’s also not an easy novel to read because, when I say Darius is awkward and loves Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, I mean it. Nearly all of his dialogue consists solely of “Um,” “Okay,” and “Sorry”; he describes the world in terms of “non-passive failures” and “Social Cues” and “Fractional” (mixed-race) vs. “Non-Fractional” i.e. “True” Persian behavior. I got strong autism spectrum vibes from Darius, in addition to social anxiety vibes, which, while absolutely wonderful to see as representation that is in no way corporatized or romanticized, also gave me the worst case of secondhand embarrassment, both for Darius and for the people around him who constantly push him around and misinterpret his intentions.
What I love most about this book is the nuanced way in which it depicts present-day Iran, from the tension between the majority-Muslim population and Bahá’í minority (of which Darius’ new friend, Sohrab, is a part) to the dazzling historical architecture. Sohrab and Darius bond over soccer, Darius bonds with his grandmother over tea, and everyone bonds over the mouthwatering food. Meaningful conversations are had about depression and the ways in which it affects everyday life. Apart from Sohrab, whose character leaves much to be desired (he’s pretty much just there to be a two-dimensional best friend to Darius), Darius’ family form a deeply flawed and deeply cast that you’re sure to love as much as Darius eventually does.
As Darius begins to find his place in both Yazd, Iran, and Portland, Oregon, so too does this book find its place in our “Finding Your Place” box. In its pages, I hope you find the permission you never needed to recognize your own innate greatness, even—especially—when you’re not okay.
*Note: Though Darius has been confirmed to be LGBTQ+ and this book’s sequel, Darius the Great Deserves Better, explicitly contains two gay love interests, Darius’ sexuality is only vaguely hinted at in this book, and LGBTQ+ themes are not explored here in any way.