The first book I ever cried while reading was “Marley and Me” by John Grogan. I read it in middle school and the death of beloved Marley was too much for my preteen heart. I hadn’t cried while reading a book again until I read “Darius the Great is Not Okay” by Adib Khorram, this year’s common read, towards the end of summer break. However, this time it wasn’t a sad cry because, spoiler alert, nobody dies in this book. I cried because I was happy and I felt a connection with Darius.
Darius Kellner is a dark haired, dark skinned half-Persian teen who loves tea, Star Trek and his sister Laleh. He gets the love of tea from his Persian mother and the love of Star Trek from his white — as Darius says “ubermensch”— father. As a self-proclaimed nerd, Darius gets bullied at school and he never feels like he belongs. Gym class is the worst and it doesn’t help that his depression medication makes him gain weight. His father, who also has depression, nitpicks every food Darius chooses to eat and wishes his son would join the soccer team.
As with most stories, Darius goes through trials to find himself. That adventure begins with a visit to Iran to see Mamou and Babou, his grandparents. There, he makes a friend in Sohrab, a neighbor boy down the street.
Darius is impressed with Sohrab’s laid-back demeanor and confidence, something that Darius lacks. He attributes this to Sohrab not feeling out of place in Iran like Darius does in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. I enjoy the contrast between Sohrab and Darius: it doesn’t feel forced.
Sohrab as a whole is a great character. He is kind when Darius feels hurt by something he does and makes an effort to fix the issue. Sohrab also doesn’t judge Darius for his depression like the other family members in Iran.
The portrayal of mental illness by Khorram is spectacular. As someone with anxiety and depression, I always try to stay away from books that address these issues. Books either go too dark and make me upset or use mental illness as a personality trait. With Darius, it feels real. I can relate to his anxious thoughts and the awkwardness he feels.
The relationship between Darius and his father also feels very real. It has the awkward vibe I felt with my parents when I was in high school. Darius always says there is a specific ratio of time he and his father can spend together before things get too awkward, and that ratio gets upset as they spend time in Iran. However, that time does help them overcome the differences they experience due to depression.
In addition to the portrayal of friendships and mental illness, I loved that culture was portrayed in this book in a way that was informative, but also encouraged me to research pronunciations and traditions. Khorram would inform the reader just enough about the culture so they wouldn’t be lost. Darius’s family’s use of the traditional name “Darioush” also made the family feel warm and inviting, which can be hard to do in a novel. I have read plenty of books where the protagonist hated pet names from their family, but this made Darius smile and blush.
While the family portrayed in the novel is amazing and dynamic, they are far from perfect. This drives home the relatability of the novel.
Overall, I really enjoyed the novel. The characters felt real and had relatable personalities. It is a story where most people can find something to love.
Khorram will give a lecture Sept. 12 in the Ballroom in the K-State Student Union.