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'Not the Girls You're Looking For' follows a rudderless Iraqi American

This dark but clever YA novel confronts topics that are not tidy – because, as Safi reminds us, these are not tidy times.

Not the Girls You're Looking For By Aminah Mae Safi Feiwel & Friends 336 pp.

In Aminah Mae Safi’s Not the Girls You’re Looking For, protagonist Lulu Saad makes a ferocious entrance, a calamitous mess, and a thought-provoking exit. She’s a handful, but that’s why we love her.

Lulu approaches life and relationships like a high-functioning weed whacker: It’s going to be loud and messy, but odds are good it’ll turn out fine in the end. Needless to say, “Not the Girls You’re Looking For” is quite a ride.

When we tune in, Lulu is galloping through junior year at a fancy Houston private school. She and her best friends, Audrey, Lo, and Emma, are competitive, defensive, independent, and brash. Lo and Lulu in particular feel no hesitation in calling people out or unleashing blistering feminist critiques in real time; there’s no esprit d’escalier here.

And yet, for all her bristles, Lulu’s public bluster belies a private struggle. As a child of an American mother and an Iraqi father, she feels like she’s a resident of both cultures, but not a full member (rather like Maya Aziz from Love, Hate, and Other Filters). She’s not Arab enough for her Arab side, but she is never considered fully American—she’s constantly code-switching.

When paramour James expresses surprise that she celebrates Christmas, Lulu responds with irritation, “Of course I celebrate Christmas; what kind of American kid doesn’t celebrate Christmas?”

When her father reminds her that he deliberately chose to raise his family as Americans, she complains, “This world may never let me forget I am Arab, but it will also keep me from belonging as one of them.”

The frustration revolves around Lulu wishing she had some kind of language for how to be a hyphenate, an in-between. She’s tired of people constantly asking her what she is, “like a piece of flora or fauna ... missing her proper taxonomy.”

Lulu says she survives via a cultivated ability to blend in with any crowd – but this is a girl who makes out with any boy she feels like, who causes a minor scandal at Ramadan, who has a capital-R Reputation. Disappearing into the wallpaper does not come naturally to Lulu Saad. When she turns her full focus on people, they feel like rabbits before a coyote.

James has a knack for appearing just when Lulu’s at her lowest, angriest, or most vulnerable, and even in those moments, the thunderstruck boy calls her “terrifying.” This is not news to Lulu.

“She had command in her eyes,” Safi writes. “But she wasn’t idly grasping for power that wasn’t hers. She had simply been born in charge. She’d known it for ages. It was only when people wouldn’t stop describing their amazement at her potency that she realized there was anything strange about it. She’d simply always felt like herself, not like some rare exception. And that, she found, scared people most of all.”

Meanwhile, Lulu fights an attraction to Dane, a cocky good ol’ boy who says things like, “You know you want it.” Dane is also the jerk whose group targeted Lulu in a yearlong anti-Muslim harassment campaign after the Paris attacks. Their complicated, pseudo-Faustian chemistry takes a darker turn when Dane goes too far at a dance.

If this feels like a jumble of relationships with unlikeable characters but lots of potential, that’s because it is. The first half of “Not the Girls You’re Looking For” struck me as rudderless, and Safi’s staccato narrative and film noir asides clashed with the lighter subject matter (“Lo was drawn to the darkness like a bad after-school special”).

Mercifully, midway through the book, I felt Safi hit her second wind when a proper plot direction took shape. Everyone’s apparent angst sharpened so I could see the real darkness behind those spiky exteriors. Safi’s narrative stride lengthened, and her pace felt newly rhythmic and natural.

It takes the full 330+ pages to see the beauty in the mess. The issues in “Not the Girls You’re Looking For” are not tidy topics, and Safi reminds us that these are not tidy times. For all the pop culture references and snide commentary on wealthy neighborhoods, Safi’s mayhem has real roots.

“Not the Girls You’re Looking For” throws both arms open to embrace the chaos. There’s anger, shame, spite, guts, weakness, and redemption. Misunderstandings, social blow-ups, substance abuse, and guys who choose not to hear “no.”

As Lulu comes into focus for the reader, so does the character for herself. After a series of major conflicts are resolved, Lulu realizes that, as an in-betweener, her defining characteristic is fluency – “the gift and the curse to move between people, languages, and cultures. Not to blend so much as to be able to communicate clearly across invisible borders.”

Have patience, both with Lulu Saad and her story as a whole. Whether or not these are the girls you’re looking for, this is a story you may come to appreciate.

Content warning: This story includes strong language, drug use, substance abuse, and sexual themes.

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