I went into this book knowing pretty much nothing about it and was an amazing read it turned out to be.
Darius the Great Is Not Okay follows Darius, a friendless, tea-obsessed clinically-depressed, half-Persian, half-American teen who refers to himself as a “Fractional Persian”; that is to say, he isn’t all that connected to his Persian family or culture, he doesn’t feel like a very good Persian; hell, even his little sister speaks better Farsi than he does.
Darius is nerdy and awkward, terrible at sports and feels as though he doesn’t really fit in anywhere. At school, he is the chubby loner who is a prime target for bullies.
Enter the Übermensch
It doesn’t help that Darius also has a super-critical disapproving father who has taken on the task of monitoring and making snide comments about every bite of food Darius puts into his mouth, continually reminding the boy that he needs to lose weight. It’s interesting how Darius always refers to his father by his first and last name: Stephen Kellner said this, Stephen Kellner said that. Another favorite name Darius has for this father is übermensch, given that Stephen Kellner is a handsome blond German who, in Darius’s eyes, seems to be the perfect idealized man.
But overall, Darius feels that he is a huge disappointment to his father and the way he sees it, his father makes no effort to hide that disappointment. The one thing that both Darius and his father have in common, however, is that they both need to take daily medication, so their depression doesn’t get out of hand.
A trip to Iran
Darius’s life changes when he’s told that he’s going to be taking a trip to Iran for the first time with his mom, dad and sister to meet his mother’s family, including grandparents that up to this point, he has only known via Skype. The reason for the trip is that his grandfather, Babou, has a brain tumor and doesn’t have much time left.
I think this was the first book that I’ve read that was set in Iran, so I really appreciated learning about the Persian culture and the vivid descriptions of the food, historical landmarks, and customs. I especially enjoyed the peppering of Farsi throughout the story.
Darius’s first friend
In Iran, Darius meets a boy named Sohrab, a neighbor boy who is quite close to Darius’s grandparents and everything changes. First off, Sohrab convinces Darius to play soccer with him, and his friends and Darius is surprised that he actually likes it — and is even more surprised to discover that he’s quite good at it! Then, they visit various historical landmarks together, and through Sohrab, Darius learns more about his heritage, and he begins to feel like a true Persian for the very first time. Sohrab even calls his Darioush – the original Persian version of his name.
Darius soon discovers that he can not only confide in Sohrab, but Sohrab seems to actually understand him, perhaps being the only person in Darius’s life who does. He also makes Darius feel included, like he belongs. But most importantly, Sohrab helps him to realize his self-worth and helps him to accept who he is.
Darius and Sohrab
I enjoyed the well-written portrayal of the many relationships in this book, but Darius and Sohrab have the most heartwarming friendship that I’ve come across. It was a delight watching them grow closer and as got to know each other. In the beginning, we saw as Darius struggled with body image issues and mental health issues, but as his relationship with Sohrab deepened, we see him begin to embrace his cultural roots and accept himself for who he is.
It was quite an emotional journey that Darius went on and a fun one for the reader to experience.
The Importance of Family and Friends
One of the consistent themes running throughout this book was the importance of family and friends. Family seemed to be especially important, especially since it plays such an essential part of Darius connecting with his Persian heritage. But moreover, it was beautiful to see Darius bond with his Persian grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all of whom he’d never met in person.
But aside from the friendship between Darius and Sohrab, my favorite relationship in the book was the fragile connection between Darius and his father. Even though they both lived with depression, Darius didn’t feel at all that close with his father. In fact, their relationship was frosty, tense and fraught with miscommunication, and the only closeness between the two of them really was when they silently watched Star Trek together every evening.
But then, they both begin to view each other in different ways, and both start to understand that things are not always as we perceive them. I love the fact that being in Iran in Yzad not only brought Darius to self-acceptance but also helped mend the relationship between him and his father and illustrated nicely how our assumptions can often cause us to mistrust and misunderstand others.
I really liked the representation of clinical depression in this book. We learn early on that Darius and his father both are living with depression, though it isn’t central to the plot. But there are several touching and poignant discussions on mental health, and through these conversations, the characters acknowledge how challenging it can be to manage clinical depression but that it can, ultimately, be controlled.
It was refreshing to see depression discussed so openly between family members and I thought that the mental health elements were handled expertly which isn’t surprising once we learn in the author’s note that this is an #ownvoices representation.
Darius the Great Is Not Okay is an emotionally compelling story that deals with many serious topics: clinical depression, feeling like you don’t belong, cultural and personal identity, feeling that you’re not good enough, grief, friendship, our bonds with others and the strained relationship between a father and son who are unable to communicate with each other. But most of all, this was a lovely coming of age book about a boy reconnecting with his Persian heritage and discovering himself in the process — and realizing that in fact, he DOES belong. Darius is such a unique and relatable protagonist, and you couldn’t help fall in love with him.
The other characters in the book were equally amazing and equally complex. I enjoyed delving into this big Persian family as they learn to accept and understand each other and it was refreshing to see that they all had various flaws and imperfections, but loved each other nonetheless.
So all in all, Darius the Great Is Not Okay is a story with memorable and endearing characters that is full of heart and I absolutely loved it.
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