In her first novel, Emily Robbins thrusts the reader into the throes of a forbidden love triangle, set amidst political unrest in the Middle East. Bea is an American student studying abroad and working as a maid for a family in a country that is never named, but strongly resembles the current state of Syria. Obsessed with the Arabic language and the idea of love, Bea’s deepest desire is to have access to a book called “The Astonishing Text.” The story inside the text bears a striking resemblance to her own, as she falls for a policeman she is not supposed to talk to, and he, in turn, falls in love with the other maid that serves her host family named Nisrine, who is an Indonesian woman with a husband and child in her home country. Despite her ties to her family abroad and knowledge of Bea’s affection for the policeman, Nisrine returns his sentiments and Bea becomes the carrier of their love poems to each other.
As their romantic interest develops, so does the growing unrest in their country. The father of Bea’s host family participates in the revolutionary protests in the city, and turmoil surrounds him as the government seeks to expose him as a rebel.
A Word for Love is modest and lovely; it deals with complex issues like the flaws in language and the distance between what is said and what is meant through beautiful composition and simple words. Robbins does a wonderful job of writing about the uniqueness of Arabic in a relatable way: “In Arabic, the words for freedom is hurriya. I remember first learning this word as a beginning student, and memorizing it by its nearness to the English word ‘hurray.’ The joy it brought me.” As the novel moves to its dramatic and shocking climax, every word begins to feel heavy and important, as if the reader is also holding an “astonishing text.” Robbins drives home the lesson that, despite conflict, language is transcendent.