Title: The Upside of Unrequited (2017)
Author: Becky Albertalli
Read: 11th – 13th February 2018
Genre: young-adult; contemporary
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love. No matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly is always careful. Better to be careful than be hurt. But when Cassie gets a new girlfriend who comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick, everything changes. Will is funny, flirtatious and basically the perfect first boyfriend. There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker, Reid, the awkward Tolkien superfan she could never fall for… right?”
(Synopsis from the publisher)
The Upside of Unrequited is my first Becky Albertalli novel, having heard nothing but praise for her debut Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda – I plumped for this one over her first simply because the synopsis sounded like something I would relate to, being similarly perplexed about how on earth people nowadays “get” boyfriends or girlfriends, whilst also harbouring many a crush on literally unobtainable men (one of Molly’s many crushes in Lin Manuel Miranda, for instance, which I get obviously). Ostensibly, the synopsis is simple: the main character Molly starts a summer job and has to work out her complicated growing feelings for two different boys. The emphasis isn’t really on plot, it’s on the characters who are swept up by the plot, and the characters’ relationships and dynamics are the real driving force behind The Upside of Unrequited.
“I don’t entirely understand how anyone gets a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend. It just seems like the most impossible odds. You have to have a crush on the exact right person at the exact right moment. And they have to like you back. A perfect alignment of feelings and circumstances. It’s almost unfathomable that it happens as often as it does.”
The great strength in Becky Albertalli’s writing is how easy it is to fall into her stories, and relate to her characters. She manages to construct a deeply diverse cast of characters in terms of race, religion, culture, and sexuality, without it once seeming far-fetched or written into the story simply to ‘tick off’ some kind of quota. Our main character Molly is fat and has issues with anxiety, her twin sister Cassie is a lesbian, one of their moms is black and the other is bisexual and Jewish, and one of the side characters Mina is pansexual and Korean-American. However, all of this feels natural, as it should, and doesn’t come across as forced; it is just a simple fact of the story and isn’t overly highlighted as though it should be the book’s only selling point, it somehow manages to be incidental at the same time as being utterly intrinsic to the narrative, as contradictory as that may sound.
” I’ve never told anyone this—not my moms, not even Cassie—but that’s the thing I’m most afraid of. Not mattering. Existing in a world that doesn’t care who I am. It’s this whole other level of aloneness.”
I could wax lyrical about how adorable and cute and squishy some of the romantic relationships were (I often do) in this book, but I’d actually like to showcase another element of the story which I deeply appreciated: extremely present parents. It is astounding how, all too often, novels neglect to portray familial relationships, or relegate the importance of showing these relationships in favour of the romantic relationships in the story – this is not the case with The Upside of Unrequited. Through every twist and turn of the narrative, Molly and Cassie’s parents are very much present and involved, and it is something of a breath of fresh air to see this in a YA contemporary. Pleasingly though, their family isn’t portrayed simply because it’s some kind of model of perfection; far from it, they argue seriously and grow apart and have less-than-supportive family members. It sounds odd to say that I’m pleased to have Molly’s grandmother make some less than understanding comments about Molly’s weight, but the reason I liked that this element was included was because it’s, above all, realistic. After all, whilst they may be family members, and they may have a person’s best interests at heart, that doesn’t mean what they say/do is always constructive or showing that what they say comes from a place of concern or love.
“Olivia’s tiny smile. ‘Yeah, you might be overthinking this.’ But here’s the thing Olivia doesn’t get. I’m not trying to overthink things. I’m trying to be less careful. But you have to be your heart’s own goalie. And if I’m going to be rejected, I want to see it coming.”
To conclude I’d like to return to our main character Molly and say that it was incredibly relatable (and heart-breaking) to have a narrator who is introverted and anti-social, with anxiety and self-esteem issues. Whilst there are a fair handful of YA books that now explore this kind of MC, I have to say that I found The Upside of Unrequited to have an edge because it actually portrays the reality of what it is actually like to feel so far behind your peers in terms of relationships, self-confidence, and understanding your own identity, all of which undeniably affect each other. It also doesn’t provide a simple “solution” or “fix” to these – a love interest doesn’t just magically sweep in and fix everything that Molly is insecure about in one fell swoop. To say I relate to the protagonist would be an understatement and this book is exactly the sort of young-adult book that I dearly wish had been more prevalent when I was a “young-adult” myself – it would have helped me to feel less abnormal.
“I know it’s not a competition, but I can’t help but feel like I’m falling further and further behind.”