You Exist Too Much - Zaina Arafat Review
by Vanessa Phan
“I’m aware I can be exhausting - “you exist too much,” my mother often told me.”
At once, deeply personal, and provocative, Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much is a powerful debut novel that explores the intense emotions and complexities that one woman faces as she navigates queerness, love addiction and family tensions. Told in vignettes that flip between the past and present, spanning the US and the Middle East, Arafat weaves scenes together seamlessly to create a compelling story that draws readers into the turbulent mind of an unnamed narrator. In each vignette, Arafat plays on the narrator’s struggle to reconcile her need for intimacy and love with her fear of being vulnerable, and ties the story together by exploring the multiple facets of her character: her upbringing, Palestinian-American identity, eating disorder and bisexuality, to name but a few.
As a reader who revels in character development and relationship dynamics, I found You Exist Too Much a brilliant novel. While the premise of the book is simple - a coming-of-age story of one 20-something year old, woman overcoming relationship issues - Arafat’s dynamic use of first-person paints the picture of a highly conscientious, complex and flawed narrator that I couldn’t help but root for.
In You Exist Too Much, Arafat invites us to live in the head of a bisexual, love addict who compulsively lies and cheats on her partners. Arafat’s ability to walk the fine line between presenting the narrator as both a subject of contempt and incredibly relatable makes the book a powerful read. While I detested the narrator for her frequent lapses in judgement and inability to distinguish right from wrong, it was fulfilling to watch the narrator delve into childhood traumas and grow. Arafat’s style of writing cuts straight to the heart of the issue - her characters are brusque and unforgiving both to themselves and each other. In a scene where our narrator feigns innocence over committing infidelity, she is challenged by her best friend to be responsible and admit her penchant for self-sabotage: “Isn’t that [getting caught in the act of cheating] essentially what you’ve been asking for, by being so reckless?”
In many ways, I loved the book because it provides a novelised case study into the psychology of relationship attachments. As a single woman in her early twenties navigating the world of dating, I found You Exist Too Much a fascinating read as an exercise in identifying different attachment styles, and patterns of healthy and unhealthy behaviour in romantic relationships. Attachment theory argues that the way that we are raised as children plays a large role in defining how we approach our romantic relationships as adults. Having recently read the psychology book Attached by Amir Levine and learnt the identifiers of different attachment styles, it was exciting to both be immersed in and analyse the relationship dynamics between different characters in the book. While Arafat is careful to do justice to highlighting the intersectional identities of the unnamed narrator, at its core, the book explores sexuality and desire. Each scene Arafat presents fleshes out the narrator’s deep-seated need for intimacy that is juxtaposed with her fear of commitment, evoking strong feelings of sympathy and frustration in me.
You Exist Too Much is the perfect read for those looking for a darker, more mature coming-of-age story, that is unafraid to show the full spectrum of human emotion. What drew me to the book primarily was how invested I felt in the narrator’s attempts to deal with her relationship issues, from infidelity to limerence. While I found the ending unrealistic in some senses - spoiler alert: the book does finish with a variation of a happily-ever-after for our poor, lost narrator - ultimately it tells the story of how messy and painful it can be to take ownership over your own future, and develop healthy relationships.
You Exist Too Much (Catapult) is now available to buy in Hardback. Many thanks to Catapult for the review copy.