Desert Isle Keeper
Not Here to Be Liked
What’s that you say? YA is immature, and just for kids? Hahahaha!
The protagonist of Michelle Quatch’s Not Here to Be Liked, Eliza Quan. isn’t sunshiny, but that shouldn’t prevent her from winning the school paper’s election for editor-in-chief, because she’s damn good at her job and has the awards to prove it. Plus, she’s running unopposed. Until, that is, Len DiMartile, a journalistically inexperienced baseball player slumming it in the paper while recovering from Tommy John surgery, spontaneously declares his candidacy. And beats Eliza.
Eliza tries to work out her feelings by writing a manifesto on the misogyny that allowed the charming, attractive, tall Len (who “just looks more like a leader”) to defeat her, but when someone posts the draft she left on the computer, Eliza finds herself at the center of an uproar. Is she a leader for gender equality? A whiner playing the misogyny card? What does it even mean to be a feminist, anyway? Surely, the one thing it means is that she can’t be attracted to Len.
Oh, y’all. This book is SO GOOD.
I’m leery of ‘unlikeable heroines’ because so often, it’s author code for ‘this person is simply a jerk.’ That’s not at all the case with Eliza. Rather than ‘unlikeable’, she’s someone who doesn’t put effort specifically into being liked or appealing. Her charisma is a negative number. Her feedback is blunt. Her clothes are oversized and forgettable. Her makeup is nonexistent. But… why should she have to be attractive to be editor-in-chief of a newspaper?
Yet just when you think the book is going to simplify into ‘plain, low-maintenance girls good, fancy girls bad’, Eliza finds an unexpected ally in Serena Hwangbo, the immaculately-maintained, never-single queen bee of the junior class. Serena has all the charisma and social smarts Eliza lacks, and persuades Eliza to stage a walk-out protest to demand Len’s resignation. How can Serena be a feminist when she’s an image-conscious flirt? Or is that another way to be?
Given that Len could end all the problems just by stepping down, he really has to deliver to be the hero at the center of this novel – and fortunately, he does. He’s thoughtful and socially conscious but remains a credible teenage boy. He gets that he has privilege, although he has to become more aware of the extent of it. He and Eliza have great chemistry. ‘We can’t get together because it will turn Eliza into a laughingstock and undermine her entire moral standing’ is a legitimate obstacle. Once they recognize their attraction, they negotiate consent and boundaries in a reasonable way.
The one shortcoming here is Eliza’s relationship with her best friend Winona. Often in YA, a best friend exists because the author needs us to know the heroine isn’t a pariah, but the action is entirely driven by the new people in her life. That is the case here. The other characters – Serena, Len, Serena’s boyfriend Jason, Eliza’s parents, Eliza’s sister – play into the larger themes of love and (or versus) feminism. Yes, Eliza’s activism takes time and energy away from her friendship with Winona and her assistance on Winona’s filmmaking project, but the feminism/friendship angle isn’t developed like the feminism/love-and-sexuality one.
I have long argued that while there are behaviors which make sense for teen protagonists and not for adults, YA as a genre doesn’t need to be held to a different standard. YA books can have rich and nuanced examination of social issues, compelling characters, complex relationships, and deeply satisfying endings. If anyone says differently, give them a copy of Not Here to Be Liked.