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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

The Book Nook: ‘How to Excavate a Heart’ is a Jewish, lesbian rom-com full of humor and warmth

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Jake Maia Arlow’s debut young adult novel, “How to Excavate a Heart," is a warm and tender lesbian rom-com released Nov. 1 from HarperCollins. A Jewish lesbian, Shani, plans to spend her winter break after her first semester of college studying fish fossils at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, not thinking about her recent breakup with her ex-girlfriend. Things get off to a rough start when she and her mother almost hit a pedestrian while trying to navigate Washington, D.C. roads in the snow, but luckily no one is harmed. Shani’s internship begins; she moves into a house with other college students and an old woman who calls them “doll” and begins getting to know her housemates. So, when she agrees to do one of them a favor and take over their dog-walking gig for a few weeks, she doesn’t think much of it. That is until she comes face to face with May — the girl her mother almost ran over. As Shani finds herself coming to May’s house in order to walk May’s father’s corgi, the two inevitably learn more about each other. Shani comes to find out that May is a Jewish lesbian too, and she’s just as passionate about atmospheric science as Shani is about paleoichthyology. While the two don’t get along at first, they’re forced to spend Christmas Eve together due to inclement weather, and they find themselves growing closer as a result. As Shani finds herself falling for May, she can’t help but worry about the risk of heartbreak in the aftermath of her ex-girlfriend’s harsh rejection.

Amid the cold, unforgiving winter setting, this lesbian love story is full of tenderness and light. Arlow brilliantly crafts a character-driven narrative through Shani’s first-person perspective and a romance that’s impossible not to root for. From their banter to their growing attraction to one another, the evolving relationship between May and Shani is so well written; the lingering, quiet moments between them are just as enthralling to read as their more intimate ones. But beyond its lighter tone and laugh-out-loud moments, “How to Excavate a Heart” also explores difficult topics — one of which is sexual assault. The topic is one handled with care, nuance and sensitivity, bringing to light conversations about trauma and consent that are vital for young queer readers to have. At the end of the day, “How to Excavate a Heart” is about how love can heal us if we let it. Shani and May both get to heal from their past relationships together, taking the risk of loving one another despite what they’ve faced. Ultimately, this novel reminds us that our pasts don’t define us, and our futures can be bright if we let them be.

“How to Excavate a Heart” is the perfect autumn read for anyone looking for something light and cozy with vivid settings, messy lesbian characters and the cutest boots-wearing dog I’ve ever envisioned while reading a book. The book is available for purchase now.