Review—Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi

[Goodreads Link]
Published by Macmillan Publishers / Feiwel and Friends Imprint


Content Warnings:
Genre-appropriate/typical description of injuries, genre-appropriate/typical sexual content, parental abandonment.

The Good
– The slow-burn enemies-to-friends-to-lovers you’ve always dreamed of
– Definitive lesbian high school rom-com
– Balanced, realistic, engaging characters
– Smart, sharp characterization
– Strong overall character arcs
– Precise, thoughtful prose invokes great visuals
– Deals with familial pressure, pressures of being a girl, etc.
– Author’s LA knowledge is spectacular and applied perfectly

The Bad
– The inevitable you-know-what comes much too sudden
– Ending makes sense, but is too sudden
– (Sensing a theme?)
– Sana’s issues with her father are never properly wrapped up
– Huge prose issues with extraneous thats and hads and fillers like made and felt

Holy crap, Tell Me How You Really Feel comes this close to being—literally—the perfect lesbian high school rom-com.

Control-freak Rachel’s hated seemingly-perfect Sana since Sana asked her out as a joke on one of the worst days of Rachel’s life. Sana’s tried to avoid the abrasive Rachel since asking her out backfired spectacularly during their first year. When they get stuck working together on Rachel’s film project, the two slowly grow to know each other better.

Sana and Rachel start out at dramatic odds with each other and Safi works up a gorgeous slow-burn as they gradually come to trust each other. Safi’s sharp, smart characterization really brings the girls to life. Rachel and Sana are distinctly their own, multifaced people without ever becoming stereotypes. It’s a treat to watch them play off each other’s responses: to brush off the other or collide with the other or—sometimes—work together in harmony. They have their own problems, which play into the larger plot. Sana’s “perfection” is an act, and after years of putting others first, she’s starting to unravel under the pressure. Despite getting into Princeton, Sana’s gone behind her family’s back and applied for a fellowship at a genetics hospital in India. Rachel wants her film to be perfect, but after multiple extensions, the project’s on borrowed time: her professor has given her a deadline of May 1st to turn it in. Sana helps Rachel see her script and characters in a new light, but Rachel’s professor may not like the changes.

The best part of the book is the first 3/4 or so. Together, Sana and Rachel are dynamic and electric, and their slow burn as they learn about and lower their defences around one another is executed PHENOMENALLY. However, no romance is complete without the temporary break-up—how else will they pull at our heartstrings? Unfortunately, after the long, loving slow burn at the beginning, their time together and break-up are sudden and unsatisfactory. Additionally, although the final scene itself is sweet and satisfactory and does technically make sense—but only when you’re visualizing Tell Me How You Really Feel as a teen rom-com movie. But it’s not a movie—it’s still a book—and as a book, it’s in need of an epilogue. As it is, the ending is too abrupt.

The setting is one of the strongest points of the book: Safi lives in Los Angelos and it shows. She invokes LA brilliantly, from the weather to the geography. There is no doubt this book takes place in Los Angelos. She also did a solid job bringing to life smaller, secondary locations such as the editing bay, the diner and Sana’s place.

Writing Style
Safi’s prose was effective but frustrating: her writing is practiced and precise, clever and sharp, and brings both the characters and story to life. Rachel and Sana become so, so real through her prose. But, damn. Those extraneous thats and hads! They clog up the wonderful prose and weigh it down. Worse: the filter words like feel and made. They’re not so much a burden in the beginning, but in the last half and quarter, when the focus is more on their relationship? They multiply and weaken the emotional impact.

Themes and Representation
Tell Me How You Really Feel is a gorgeous book in terms of both representation and how it handles representation. Rachel is Hispanic and Jewish. She’s dealt with her mom leaving and carrying the burden of providing financial assistance for her family when her father struggled afterward. Sana is the grandchild of Iranian and Pakistani immigrants, and she feels the pressure of pleasing her hard-working, risk-taking grandparents as well as the mother who risked it all to live life by her own terms. There’s a gorgeous narrative about the pressure both Sana and Rachel feel as girls in a male world, knowing they need to be perfect to be anybody. Additionally, both girls, I think, are lesbians (Sana definitely is) and while it’s acknowledged their experience is different than a straight girl’s, there’s no overt homophobia.

Recommended For…
Tell Me How You Really Feel is an amazing, feel-good high school rom-com that never shies away from some unpleasant feelings in life and encourages you to do your best in life.

Genres: Young Adult, LGBT+, Contemporary

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