Alexene Farol Follmuth’s debut My Mechanical Romance is a provocative entry into contemporary YA romance, but struggles with shallow feminist messaging.

Bel Maier, one of the leads, avoids answering any questions about her future. College? Undecided. Career? Who knows. Assignment due by the end of the day? Out of sight, out of mind, but don’t worry, she gets it done last minute and somehow still gets an A.

Mateo “Teo” Luna, Jr., on the other hand, can only plan for the future. College? MIT. Career? Robotics engineering. Assignment due by the end of the day? Finished last week, and you know he likely gets the highest score. So what happens when Bel somehow makes it onto her new school’s prestigious, award-winning robotics team — and because Teo picks her? Well, falling in love isn’t what either of them expects.

But with love comes hardship, and for Bel, that looks like challenging misogyny without drawing attention at home because her newly divorced parents are still fighting, her brothers are picking sides, and she’s stuck in the middle. For Teo, hardship looks like recognizing his male privilege, his limits, and that he can’t control everything. But together, Bel and Teo may be able to overcome anything.

I initially picked up this book with high expectations for its premise and themes. At the time, I was in the middle of my master’s program in Asian American Studies, researching and writing contemporary, preferably queer, Filipina American YA literature. Another Filipina American recommended My Mechanical Romance because of the novel’s writing quality and “strong feminist messaging,” a perspective reflected in many Goodreads reviews.

It was also the second contemporary YA book I ever read that featured a mixed Filipina American protagonist and the first I read by a Filipina American author. So I peeked into Bel and Teo’s story expecting not just a “feel-good, enemies-to-lovers” romance but also a reflection on a Filipina’s experience in STEM. Suffice it to say, My Mechanical Romance is not that.

Follmuth does skillfully capture the voices of early-2020s teenagers. There are plenty of charming parallels between Bel and Teo’s voices, and clever callbacks as the characters develop. The novel is a fast read with a familiar plot structure. Yet Follmuth seems to struggle with writing a nuanced identity-focused narrative involving issues on gender, much less race and class. The story’s triumphant moments and “progressive” messaging feel cheapened by some of the obnoxious narration. The sweeter “feminist” victories are too idealistic and didactic. Sometimes, they even come off as disingenuous.

The novel is too blunt with its messaging (and white feminism) that I couldn’t take it seriously. What’s more, many of the good things that happen to Bel occur without proper set-up — Bel just gets “lucky.” This weakens the story’s themes about taking responsibility for and agency in your life; instead, it tells the reader that to be successful, you have to be lucky (or pretty or rich). And the ending and epilogue paint a grossly idealistic scenario for both the characters’ romantic relationship and their college careers, to the point where it feels irrelevant to the plot and undermines the novel’s overarching themes.

Despite their developments, both characters are willfully ignorant of their privileges. While Teo’s character arc involves him realizing that he can’t control everything à la “checking his male privilege,” despite his clear, yet momentary, concerns about systemic issues like race, he makes concerning, even insulting comments about working class people. Such comments are never reflected on in greater depth or nuance, simply meant to situate the protagonists as respectably wealthy. Even his concerns about race and the environment are dismissed by Bel (she literally laughs in his face about his racial concerns!) and invariably by the novel.

Bel’s development centers on her gaining confidence as a girl in STEM, but nearly everything she experiences and embodies undermines the novel’s “feminist” messaging. She’s a manic pixie dream “not like other girls” girl, except that she likes Taylor Swift, y’know, like other girls. “I like to think I have eccentric tastes in most things, but I like Taylor Swift, too. I’m human, after all,” she says. She’s an eccentric whose creativity shouldn’t mesh with something as “technical” as robotics, yet she’s a “genius” despite her self-sabotaging.

More importantly, she’s pretty and attention-grabbing, as stated by not only herself but also Teo: “I guess she’s not not hot.” Bel reads just as ignorant of her “pretty privilege” (among other things) as Teo is of his class and male privilege. She gets Teo’s help in large part due to his physical attraction to her. Seeing how Teo negatively treats Neelam, the only other female engineer, brings to question whether Teo would have given Bel the same attention of offered her the same opportunities if she were less physically attractive. Even her “frenemy” Neelam points this out:

“Sure, you’re lucky, you’re pretty and bubbly and people like you,” [Neelam] adds with another look of annoyance, “but you’re even worse off than I am for that, because they won’t take you seriously. This team? This team only takes you seriously because Teo Luna did, and lucky you.”

But Bel’s so willfully ignorant that she pretends to not know why she even made it onto the robotics team. “And Teo did pick me. For whatever reason, he picked me” (Bel, 212). The message to readers is that you’ll only get opportunities if you’re attractive enough, which doesn’t seem very feminist.

Follmuth doesn’t seem to know how to write about nuanced identity issues in a deep, compelling, intersectional way. Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is a framework used to understand how the discrimination of various identities (e.g., race, gender, class, disability, queerness, religion) interact to create unique experiences of privilege and oppression. Despite some on-page conversations about privilege, there is barely any commentary about the intersectionality of identities, particularly gender, class, and race. Despite the cast consisting of people of color, race is treated as incidental and not integral to the characters’ conflicts or developments, if not outrightly disregarded as a serious, compounding factor in discrimination.

All the named supporting racialized characters are silly archetypes at best and regressive stereotypes at worst. Teo’s friends consist of a chill South Asian foodie and a “self-hating,” academics-driven (presumably) Asian grump. Teo’s mom is a vain and blasé white “Jew-ish” (italics in original) woman who, despite her healthy relationship with Teo, reinforces the “Jewish American princess” stereotype. Mateo Luna, Jr., the only adult man of color and only full-Latine man, is unsympathetic, success-oriented, and prioritizes his career over his family. Bel’s dad is… a decent white man who, despite his alleged infidelity in the past, expresses a healthy dose of physical affection, trust, and freedom with Bel.

Then there’s Bel’s mom and Neelam, the other two women of color, named as such in the text. Bel’s mom, the only adult woman of color and immigrant character, is a stereotypical Asian “tiger mom” who is also a “victim” of her cheating white ex-husband. All of this, plus her lack of presence and agency, paints a horridly shallow representation of women of color, Asian women, and immigrant people. Neelam, the only other girl of color among Bel’s classmates, is portrayed just as negatively. She’s overly defensive, aggressive, and a “gatekeep.” And because she is the “social justice mouthpiece,” the novel essentially turns the reader off from properly considering real systemic issues, like cultural appropriation.

Bel, in contrast, barely thinks about her identity as a mixed-race white-Asian woman in STEM, beyond an insensitive joke. “Sure, it’s not that hard to be a big fish in our pond — Luke in particular likes to jokingly call us ‘dumb Asian’ or ‘jungle Asian’ because we’re half Filipino, which my mother loathes — but even so.” (Bel, 28).

This is an uncredited reference to Ali Wong’s stand-up comedy special, Baby Cobra, in which Wong refers to her and her ex-husband as half “jungle Asian” (Wong is half Vietnamese and her ex is half Filipino) and half “fancy Asian” (half Chinese and half Japanese, respectively). The reference left me with a nasty taste in my mouth. The contexts matter: Wong’s joke is said as part of a comedy special in which race and gender are at the forefront. The joke incites contemplation on what we consider as “fancy” or “jungle” Asian — there is a clear relationship between which cultures are perceived as such in the Western imagination and which cultures endured Western colonization.

But Bel mentions the joke as a reason why she shouldn’t join robotics! The joke then perpetuates the “self-hating Asian” archetype. As a reader who is familiar with the joke’s origin, not to mention who is Filipina, I found the joke offensive and shameful, especially as a scapegoat for Bel’s lack of motivation and skewed self-esteem. This is ironic, given that her mother is a nurse, another Filipino stereotype, and her brother Gabe is pursuing medicine. Otherwise, Bel being Filipina is an afterthought; it doesn’t impact her character development or aspirations.

Moreover, such racial/ethnic commentary is never discussed with Bel’s gender identity. Bel is not shy to mention how she grew up learning that “girls aren’t usually into robots,” but how does this interact with stereotypes about Asians in STEM? Or Asian women in STEM?

As a second-generation Filipina American, I was always self-conscious about my mediocrity in STEM because of the stereotype that “Asians are good at math (and science).” Thankfully, I discovered a love for literature and the arts at a young age and my parents supported me. Nonetheless, my lack of STEM achievements gave me imposter syndrome. How could I call myself “Asian” if I’m not “good at math (or science)”? At the same time, I felt guilty as a woman for not being “good” at STEM. Unlike Bel, who uses the sexist stereotype as an excuse, I felt like I was disappointing womanhood for potentially perpetuating the stereotype. So could you blame me for being disappointed when I finally read about a Filipina protagonist breaking into STEM, and who is not in medicine, yet she doesn’t reflect on her ethnic identity beyond apathy and shame?

Then there’s the divorce subplot. Follmuth uses Bel’s parents’ divorce as shorthand for “sad backstory” and another scapegoat for her lack of direction. Since readers are never allowed to see who Bel was before the divorce, this feels like a weak excuse for Bel’s main internal conflict. She’s “stuck in the middle,” but there’s no real emotional or interpersonal weight to this struggle. Lines like, “The pressure to belong to one or the other —plus the idea that my dad thinks he and I are perfectly fine, and the fact that my mom is working so hard for me — leaves me hurling myself out the door” are so powerful yet fall flat when one, it’s clear to the reader which “side” she should pick, he dad’s, just based on their relationship and two, there’s no proper development or resolution between her and her parents.

She never confides in them about how she feels about their divorce, about robotics, or about her future. These conflicts and lines would hold more weight if they actually impacted her identity formation. What does siding with her mother represent? What about siding with her father? What does it mean to stand at the side or stand in the middle? Does she mean a cultural identity? Gender identity? Career path? It doesn’t seem like these things concern Bel, which makes the child-of-divorce plotline come off as lazy writing, especially for me, a child of divorced parents.

I suggest that the story’s narrative and theme would have benefitted from replacing Teo with Neelam as the second protagonist. The story wouldn’t have to rely on a queer, sapphic romantic relationship; Bel and Teo can still develop romance. Readers would still get the contrast of Bel’s robotics rookie journey with a robotics veteran, but we would also get to understand the scope of Neelam’s history as the previously only female engineer and Bel’s effect. Follmuth could then develop a solid camaraderie between them, regardless of whether it becomes a genuine friendship — y’know, what feminism is about? This change could fix some of my critiques, like Bel’s cultural shame, since in the novel Neelam demonstrates cultural pride. Developing a closer relationship between them would allow for meaningful, intersectional culture–gender discourse.

Additionally, both Bel and Neelam demonstrate opposing expressions of femininity. Such characteristics should be thematically significant, but within the novel’s context, they do not achieve the novel’s feminist solidarity goals. Some of Bel’s lines about physical appearance and aesthetic style are weak attempts at approving different versions of femininity; but at worst, they’re dismissive of other girls’ versions, specifically Jamie’s “intellectual” and Neelam’s “practical” versions. If Bel can learn to “take up her own space,” and Neelam can see other women not as “competition” but as others with whom to share space, this establishes a stronger “women supporting women in STEM” message. Developing their growth with and understanding of each other could more effectively show supportive, intersectional feminism.

Overall, My Mechanical Romance was disappointingly shallow in terms of feminism. It treats racial identity as a box to tick, as something to be ashamed about, and not as an important, positive factor of identity formation. It views systemic oppression in a vacuum, as a scapegoat, as periphery. It throws around buzzwords like “heteronormative” and “intersectional feminist” without defining those concepts, much less reflecting on them. It reads as “white feminist.” It tries to celebrate women in STEM but encourages a specific kind of woman: palatable to men, hyper-feminine, yet exotic, and lucky — and that’s ultimately what I find at fault with in this novel.

I cannot recommend My Mechanical Romance. Though I did finish the novel (twice), it left me sorely disappointed and even incredulous at how the author addresses the “feminist” subject matter. As a friend said, “Things can be fun, feel-good, enemies-to-lovers romps and still have meaningful things to contribute to discourse about systemic oppression,” but My Mechanical Romance doesn’t have anything meaningful to say. The narrative, characterizations, and themes don’t achieve what I think Follmuth or the marketing team aimed for. There are much better women of color-led, STEM-centric YA romances out there. From a seasoned contemporary YA romance reader, My Mechanical Romance is not worth the effort. 

Previous articleSolo ballet dancer Kuu Sakuragi plumbs emotional depths through dance
Next articleAnida Yoeu Ali reenacts mobility, the resilience of diaspora in new art