Aminah Mae Safi’s Tell Me How You Really Feel is an ode to romantic comedies, following two girls on opposite sides of the social scale as they work together to make a movie and try very hard not to fall in love.
The first time Sana Khan asked out a girl–Rachel Recht–it went so badly that she never did it again. Rachel is a film buff and aspiring director, and she’s seen Carrie enough times to learn you can never trust cheerleaders (and beautiful people). Rachel was furious that Sana tried to prank her by asking her on a date.
But when it comes time for Rachel to cast her senior project, she realizes that there’s no more perfect lead than Sana–the girl she’s sneered at in the halls for the past three years. And poor Sana–she says yes. She never did really get over that first crush, even if Rachel can barely stand to be in the same room as her.
Told in alternative viewpoints and set against the backdrop of Los Angeles in the springtime, when the rainy season rolls in and the Santa Ana’s can still blow–these two girls are about to learn that in the city of dreams, anything is possible–even love.
This was probably one of the best Sapphic romances I’ve read, and probably among the best romances overall. It was a quick, fun read, with interesting characters, believable motives, relatable insecurities, and stellar representation. Were the characters whiny and annoying at times? Yes they were, but would it really be a book about American teenagers if they weren’t? All in all, a pretty good read, and definitely one I’d recommend.
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So this started off really well, and I thought it’d be just about the perfect Sapphic romance for me – representation of all kinds, sympathetic but complex characters, and an angsty but somehow wholesome enemies-to-lovers kind of plot set in a posh high school full of high-achieving types. Like a more diverse Gossip Girl meets Gilmore Girls (which the book was actually inspired by) sort of thing. But it wasn’t, not entirely – or at least, it was a lot more Gilmore than Gossip.
On the representation front, it absolutely delivered, and gave me some GREAT child-of-immigrants representation, in this case from a Persian Indian background, which frankly I’ve never read before. It was the tiny details that made it real, like the her saying it was always Persian food at home, but Indian when they dined out. It was also really nice to see a character who’d not lost or neutralised her identity as a culturally different person growing up in the West, even though she seemed to be (I think?) third-gen, and never having visited the ‘home country’ as she calls it. Sana is overall a very likeable and intelligent protagonist. She’s definitely channelling early-seasons Rory Gilmore, as was her inspiration, but without the seeds of unhealthy perfectionism and entitlement that built up to Rory’s inevitable downfall in later seasons. Sana comes across as much more balanced and grounded character than Rory, and perhaps this grounding is due, in part, to the her immigrant background.
We learn this about Sana, literally and metaphorically, through Rachel’s artistic lens. In fact, the whole story felt a lot like Rachel’s view of Sana, which was an interesting choice. At times this lens is critical, and at other times very much rose-tinted and self-deprecating for Rachel herself. It also felt like we ended up learning a lot more about Sana than we do about Rachel as a character. Or, perhaps if not more, certainly we learn about different parts of them. We learn about Rachel’s ambition and her dreams and creative aspirations – this seems to be her central driver as a character, so it makes a lot of sense that this is the focus. Her arc seems very much about that rags-to-riches claw-your-way-to-the-top sort of dream. You see that pretty starkly, especially at the start, and for a lot of the book, I’m not sure much else comes through. We learn a little about her relationship with her family, her father who she’s close to despite them having gone through hard times, and we learn about her no-nonsense boss at her part-time job, who’s a refreshing character that I liked seeing a lot. We get these little glimpses of the her background – like being part of the Mexican Jewish community (though a lot of that is told rather than shown), or that she’s ashamed of her working class roots and the way her family seems to live. We do get all that, but I feel like none of it was really addressed to the degree that it could have been, and felt somewhat unsatisfying.
Maybe it’s asking too much from what was supposed to be a cute high-school rom-com, but I don’t think it is, because the Aminah Mae Safi did a really great job with exploring Sana’s background and providing that solid reasoning for why she was who she was, and showing everything she felt about it. In contrast, we don’t see this for Rachel at all, which just seemed odd to me. The character development we get for Rachel is very much around her dreams and aspirations, around her conquering her insecurities and anxieties over working with others and giving up control, and sort of growing slowly out of her underdog mindset as she learns to trust others. Maybe this is just saying that Rachel’s background wasn’t very central to her character, or to her budding relationship with Sana. And maybe that’s true – maybe I should just let her be who she is. It’s also constantly obvious that Sana’s background, both her cultural background and her other family circumstances are absolutely central to who she is, so perhaps it was an intentional choice to explore that particularly in depth. But somehow, it just didn’t hit right for what was otherwise a very nicely developed coming-of-age high-school romance flick.
I actually rather loved it overall, which is probably why I was disappointed, because I think it had so much potential to further explore her relationship with her father, and her other non-work-related insecurities, such as the body image issues that seemed to be only glancingly mentioned. We are not told how she gets over these things, or whether she does, they’re just sort of there, but that is fine (or so I tell myself), because we are works in progress, and I suppose we should allow the characters we read about to be the same. We see Rachel work through her control issues and learn to rely on people and open herself up slowly, and it’s sweet and heart-warming. That’s good enough. That can absolutely be good enough. In the bits of her life that happen off the page, we can hope that Rachel continues to grow and confront her fears and insecurities with Sana hopefully by her side.
Speaking of Sana, this book is really a shining example of a character study with Sana as its captivating subject. I think that’s really the beating heart of this narrative, and I think that’s why we as the readers very much fall in love with and are charmed by peeling back the layers of this ‘perfect’ girl and all the roiling chaos beneath it. It’s very much the notion of duck paddling frantically underwater, and I think we’re seeing a lot more of these stories these days, exploring the idea of the contrasting reality hidden behind the scenes.
This idea is central to Sana’s character, and something the book constantly explores – the cost of maintaining this illusion of perfection, and that the person herself is almost lost to the illusion. As we move through the narrative, we follow her as she finds her way back to her truth. We see this through Sana in the main narrative, as well as through Helen in the parallel narrative of Rachel’s graduation film retelling the story of Helen of Troy (or Helen of Sparta). It’s a bit on the nose in terms of exploration of character, because you literally hear Sana telling Rachel what it’s like to be ‘perfect’ through her comments in favour of Helen, and then you see Rachel realising that this what Sana experiences herself. But still, I have to say I really enjoyed the way it was executed and, if you don’t overthink things like I do, you can pretty much read the whole film project as a charming bonding moment between the two girls that establishes their characters and helps develop their relationship.
As a side note, I’ll admit that Sana’s observations of Helen and ‘classics’ were generally very valid points, like the almost lack of agency assumed of Helen. This perspective was something that really didn’t occur to me, and was not mentioned or taught to me when I myself was studying classics at a school that was in fact quite like the one in this book, and very much full of posh high-achievers. It is very true that we did indeed study the more heteronormative male figures in the epics far more than the female ones. In fact, I distinctly remember, one of my exam questions was to write an essay about whether Paris or Patroclus (who’s not particularly heteronormative but let’s go with the general argument) had a greater impact on the events of Iliad. I can’t remember who I argued for, possibly Patroclus just to be contrary? But having read this, it did make me wonder whether perhaps the more interesting question would have been whether Helen or Paris had more of an impact, because in the act of running away and triggering the events they often seem to be treated as one unit, at least in popular culture. Either way, it certainly gave me something to think about, as well as being a nice kind of familiar for someone who’d studied the classics as well as having had a phase of being well into Greek myths.
In case you were wondering, I was definitely more of an outsider than a posh high-achiever at school, and was absolutely equally desperate as Rachel is in the book to get into a good college. Whether that did good in the long-term is another question, but it was certainly a fascinating reprieve from reality to go there and experience that kind of high-pressure environment where extreme achievement was just the norm. I could definitely understand why Rachel’s insecurities might flare up at that kind of school and why she’d feel the pressure that ended up showing up mostly as badly channelled angst.
As a downside, I did feel like there was a lot of rather stereotypical teen filmmaker angst – but maybe that’s the point? That they’re teenagers after all, and that teenagers are dramatic? I’m not sure. I’m probably reading this book 10 years too late to fully appreciate that, because most of the time all I felt was the need to grab these characters by the shoulders and shake some sense and self-belief into them. But well, maybe that’s too harsh.
Angst aside, their relationship itself was rather cute, and I definitely enjoyed seeing them grow together. I have to say it was pretty refreshing to have the perfect cheerleader character being the one who was very much out and proud, and seeing her be the bold daring part of the pairing was just nice? I think it’s something I’ve not seen or read before, so it felt kind of fresh to me, even though when I think of it, it probably shouldn’t have been.
I think in the end, that’s what I’ll remember this book for – the great representation and an unusual combination of archetypes, other than being generally a good time. As a queer Indian person myself, that kind of positive confident representation is something I’d have loved to have when I was growing up in a western country as a child of immigrants, and a first-gen immigrant myself. It made my heart happy to read it now as an adult too, but I think it’s something I needed to see as a kid, something that would’ve done me good had I seen it then. I’m honestly so glad that more of these books exist today, because what can I say? Representation is important.