‘How to Excavate a Heart’ is a delightful, exciting twist on the classic holiday story


Daija Hammonds

“How to Excavate a Heart” by Jake Maia Arlow tells the story of Shani trying to navigate life after her first heartbreak. (Daija Hammonds | Northern Star)

By Caleb Johnson, Lifestyle Writer

Editor’s Note: This review will contain spoilers, so read with caution, or go read the novel and come back later.

Heartbreak, love, chance meetings: these are some of the things that define the human experience, and they just so happen to be some of the major themes of Jake Maia Arlow’s latest release, “How to Excavate a Heart.”

This light-hearted book is the perfect slice-of-life experience and is a delightful and wonderful romantic comedy. “How to Excavate a Heart” is a fun and exciting twist on the classic Christmas/holiday romance story. 

The story follows a young gay Jewish woman named Shani as she deals with her first heartbreak after going to college, losing her virginity and then breaking up with her first girlfriend in the span of a couple of days. This plot point drives much of the first half of the book as she vows to her friend Tay that she’s not going to be with anyone during the winter break.  

“I’m never going to date anyone ever again, so I’ll never be sad again,” Shani says. 

To complicate matters more for the young lead, this is Shani’s first holiday away from home, with the main setting being an internship at the Smithsonian over winter break. While there Shani stays with an old family friend, Beatrice, along with two university students that are around Shani’s age.

One thing that stands out in this novel is the dialogue. Arlow does a phenomenal job of making the characters talk in a way that is very realistic by giving us the inner thoughts of a 20-something gay Jewish girl. This really helps you get into the character’s mindset and connect with her. 

The comedic aspect of the book is really well done. I especially enjoy Beatrice is also another one of my favorite characters, who is funny just by being her kooky old self. Beatrice is 96 and likes to call the girls “dolls.” This reminds me a lot of my grandmother and I really enjoyed that. 

In one scene, Beatrice welcomes Shani home after her internship. Beatrice is sitting with the other girls, Lauren and Tasha, who are sitting at the table laughing and making jokes. 

The scene is really heartwarming. At one point, the girls and Beatrice were eating ice cream mixed with Bailey’s Irish Cream. This made for a troubling situation because Shani had never had alcohol before. However, as it is a safe and comfortable environment, Shani gives in and enjoys herself. 

I really liked being able to go on a journey with Shani as she grew and changed throughout the story. 

I also really enjoyed how Shani meets her love interest, May. Shani’s mom almost hits her with the car in the middle of a blizzard. The book can still be a bit cliche though, at times leaning a little too much into the classic scenarios of holiday romance stories. 

As most fictional romances normally go, May starts being antagonistic with Shani and acts particularly hateful toward her. After the events of the collision, they end up accidentally meeting again because Shani takes a dog-walking gig from May’s father. May then slams the door in Shani’s face. 

From there, the book goes by fast. May and Shani get snowed in at May’s house when Shani comes over to walk the dog and they end up bonding over past traumas. 

While I really enjoyed these heartwarming moments, at times they came too fast to process. I really liked the ending, but I am not quite sure that it is realistic for the whole story to happen during the span of a month. 

Shani broke up with her girlfriend and lost her virginity, then over winter break she fell in love and everyone started accepting her sexuality right away. The characters in the book even point out that it feels like a Hallmark movie.

Still, in the end, I think this book is important. I love the diverse representation and I wish we had more delightfully queer holiday stories. 

Arlow’s next book is “The Year My Life Went Down the Toilet”  and will be released in August 2023.