Have you ever had the feeling that, despite all the good, hard work you've done, there's always someone else getting more accolades by accomplishing less? If you identify as a woman, it's far more likely that you've experienced such a thing in your lifetime. If you're Eliza Quan, you've just walked in on this exact scenario.
Eliza, the Chinese Vietnamese American heroine of Michelle Quach's marvelous debut novel Not Here to Be Liked, is managing editor of the Willoughby High School Bugle and has worked tirelessly on the newspaper's staff for years. She's running unopposed for Editor in Chief until the last minute, when Eliza is notified of another candidate: Leonard "Len" DiMartile, an impossibly charming, half-white half-Japanese former basketball player.
Now, Eliza's not likable, and she knows it. She doesn't dress to impress or alter her attitude to fit the social situation. She relies on her top-notch brain and expertise to see her through. So when some guy with little expertise and a boatload of charisma steps up at the eleventh hour and walks away with the position she's worked toward for years, it is not a pretty sight.
In a fit of cathartic pique, Eliza pours her heart out into a Google Doc on a newsroom computer. She covers everything from Len's considerable lack of experience to the institutionalized sexism at Willoughby in general. She's interrupted before finishing, but that doesn't stop someone from wrapping it up on her behalf and printing the manifesto as Bugle online news the next day.
The piece is taken down immediately, but there is no unringing that bell. Eliza finds herself held up as the Voice of Feminism at Willoughby, and she rises to the challenge. But how do you "solve" sexism from within an already deeply misogynistic framework? How do you combat all the hate this world seems to carry, in high school and beyond?
Even worse, Eliza's so blinded by her snap labeling of Len as "the face of the patriarchy" that she doesn't actually give him a chance. The more she gets to know him, the more she grows to like him. But following through with her plans will kill whatever fondness is budding between them, just as surely as hooking up with Len will completely undermine her activism. What's a girl to do?
Not Here to Be Liked is a truly excellent book, helmed by two captivating main characters and an author who is not shy about tackling weighty subjects. Through Eliza's eyes, readers experience views on menstruation, blonde jokes, and how the definition of feminism isn't the same for everyone. And just how much effort a woman puts in to making the act of being a woman seem effortless. Or how being liked is valued far more in today's society than being smart or good. Or how one can "act out" without acting out at all. And on top of all that, Quach explores the beautifully specific and different experiences of the myriad cultures that fall under the umbrella of "Asian" in America.
As large as these topics might loom, Eliza and Len's story flows with ease, peppered with snappy dialogue from one outrageous incident to another. I couldn't help but fall in love with the heroine with genuine gumption and the handsome hero who both challenges and respects her.
At its heart, Not Here to be Liked is a thoughtful discussion about what makes each of us different, and what things bring us together despite those differences. You don't have to worry about being liked, but Quach's novel is certainly here to be loved!
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.