Eliza Quan is the perfect candidate for editor in chief of her school paper. That is, until ex-jock Len DiMartile decides on a whim to run against her. Suddenly her vast qualifications mean squat because inexperienced Len—who is tall, handsome, and male—just seems more like a leader.
When Eliza’s frustration spills out in a viral essay, she finds herself inspiring a feminist movement she never meant to start, caught between those who believe she’s a gender equality champion and others who think she’s simply crying misogyny.
Amid this growing tension, the school asks Eliza and Len to work side by side to demonstrate civility. But as they get to know one another, Eliza feels increasingly trapped by a horrifying realization—she just might be falling for the face of the patriarchy himself.
I was provided an eARC of the book in exchange for an honest review.
When asked for feminist contemporary fiction recommendations, I always seem to draw a blank. When I think about feminist young-adult fiction, I think the likes of Moxie. Though Moxie is a relevant and important piece of fiction in the ways that it engaged young readers into thinking and exploring sexism, I also wondered how Moxie, a book about a young white feminist who fights the patriarchy in small town Texas, is relevant to me – an Asian woman.
Enter Not Here to be Liked by Michelle Quach, a young adult contemporary that is as sharp and funny as they come. Though Not Here to be Liked doesn’t intend to be the end-all-be-all of feminist fiction, Not Here to be Liked is a welcome addition to feminist literature, particularly for how it explores the intersections the race and gender and how it centers an Asian teen who is unlikeable, yes, but also complex, interesting, and flawed as we all are.
The story follows Eliza, a Vietnamese-Chinese-American teen who, upon losing the editor-in-chief role to Len, an inexperienced male newcomer, accidentally starts a feminist movement in her school when a piece she writes in anger is mysteriously published on their school newspaper. If things weren’t messy enough, things get even more complicated when Eliza starts to fall for Len.
The narrative in Not Here to be Liked pulls no punches and is immediately engaging from the very first chapter. It blends warmth and humour with sharpness and astute observations. Being in Eliza’s head was an absolute delight. Eliza herself is a wonderful protagonist; sharp, witty, prickly, and what we would call a conventionally ‘unlikeable’ character. I’m drawn to unlikeable characters, even more drawn to the ways we construe what is likeable versus what is unlikeable, and how we differentially construe likeability when accounting for the character’s gender and racial background. I enjoy stories where a character’s flaws are laid out in plain sight, unabashed yet vulnerable and wholly open to criticism – and for Eliza, she most certainly is flawed (on that, ‘flawed’ in ways that are not just quirky or cute-flawed), but that’s what makes her such a brilliant and compelling character.
Eliza’s characterisation is both fascinating and compelling in the context of the story and how, I expect, different readers will engage with her character. Despite the mantras that we tell young girls and femme teens – “be unapologetic!” and “forget the haters, be proud of who you are!” – Eliza is, conventionally, an ‘unlikeable character’; she is who she is, she chooses comfort and convenience over presentation, and she is competent in what she does and knows it. Eliza doesn’t apologise for being good – and why should she? As the title of the book perceptively suggests, Eliza is ‘not here to be liked’.
And yet, Eliza isn’t exactly a ‘nice’ person. She isn’t ‘likeable’, because she is critical and honest with her thoughts. (In saying that though, I found Eliza thoroughly charming and I adored her from the get-go.) So when Eliza loses the leadership role to Len, a boy who is comparatively inexperienced and less qualified but is more likeable, the story explores the double-standards that come with leadership and sexism. Why do we expect women, especially women of colour, to be competent and likeable leaders whereas men just need to be competent? But are kindness and empathy not important qualities too? Does Eliza lose to Len because she’s not likeable, and is that sexist? Not Here to be Liked delves headfirst into the complexities and nuances of these questions, not quite giving readers a straight-forward answer, but by provoking readers with thoughts and questions about the expectations that we pin on women.
Furthermore, the story offers a nuanced examination of feminism and what it means to be an intersectional feminist. If you read and resonated with Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, you will know how feminism isn’t and will probably never be performed and embodied perfectly; feminists are ultimately imperfect and human. Not Here to be Liked doesn’t present readers with this grand feminist ideal that all feminists should aspire to. Rather, Not Here to be Liked presents feminism at its most real: that advocacy and social justice aren’t these neat things, but involves a messy process of learning and unlearning and figuring out the grey, complicated areas. For all of Eliza’s thorns and sharp edges, she is, at the end of the day, an Asian teen who navigates what feminism means to her, her peers, and her school. Eliza’s character arc is incredible and relatable. She makes mistakes too, and she isn’t a perfect feminist despite being placed on a pedestal, and she too has to confront her own biases.
My review makes this book sound like a dense, discourse-heavy story about feminism. Though feminism gives the story momentum, Not Here to be Liked has some surprisingly wonderful and satisfying emotional beats. The hate-to-mutual-respect-to-reluctant-friends-to-lovers romance in this book was delightful too; equal parts nuanced and complex but also equal parts unexpectedly yet delightfully fuzzy with a satisfying resolution. The friendships were also wonderful (I absolutely adored Winona, Eliza’s best friend) and I enjoyed how the story plays into the Not Like Other Girls and girl-girl hate trope, but then subverts these tropes in a surprising and meaningful way.
The other significant focus that engaged me was how the story explores family. Eliza’s family is by no means perfect; she feels the burden and weight of her mother’s incessant expectations of her and how she compares to her sister, Kim. Like many Asian parents – in reality and in fiction – Eliza’s mother wants the best for her daughters, even though her idea of what is ‘best’ conflicts with the ideas that Eliza may want for herself. What I liked, though, is that Eliza’s mother is not portrayed to be this inherently bad person. Rather, and consistent with everything across the story, Eliza’s family dynamics are complicated, far from perfect, but is ultimately humanising and comes from a place of love.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Not Here to be Liked is the feminist story that I have been looking for, and will be a feminist contemporary that will resonate with young readers today. Intersectional, complex, and thoroughly engaging, Not Here to be Liked is both a thought-provoking and fun read, a wonderful and timely addition to intersectional feminist young adult fiction that showcases the messiness but also joys of being a young Asian feminist finding her voice and her place, of feeling love and finding love, and also figuring out the person that she wants to be.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A Vietnamese-Chinese-American teen accidentally starts a feminist movement in her school – and starts to fall in love with the boy who the movement is aimed against.
Perfect for: Readers who love complex and nuanced stories; readers looking for a feminist contemporary story; readers who love messy and unlikeable characters; readers who like dislike-to-love romances.
Think twice if: You’re not looking for a nuanced story and prefer something more simple and straightforward.
Genre: young adult contemporary, romance
Trigger/content warning: sexism (challenged), racism (challenged)