Title: THE UPSIDE OF UNREQUITED
Author: Becky Albertalli
Release Date: April 2017
Publisher: Balzer & Bray/HarperTeen
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads
This was such a light, charming read! I finished it in two days because I simply could not put it down!
Molly Peskin-Suso is a seventeen-year-old girl who has had twenty-six crushes and no boyfriends. She’s funny, tenacious, artistic – and fat. She’s not looking to lose weight or get a makeover. Molly generally has no issues with her body, but she’s uncomfortable with how other people might react to it. This has made her hesitant when it comes to relationships. Considering the rampant fatphobia in our culture, this is a perfectly reasonable reaction. The Upside of Unrequited chronicles Molly’s adventures as she and her twin sister Cassie both find their first significant others.
There is so much diversity in this book. Cassie is a lesbian. Molly and Cassie’s parents are an interracial gay couple. Cassie’s girlfriend Mina is Korean and pansexual. And on and on. The variety of people encountered in this book is stunning, which renders it realistic and believable. Something the author does that I very much appreciate – and that is rarely seen in books – is describe characters as “white.” Often it is only non-white characters who are described by their ethnicity or skin color, which leads to white characters being the default in the narrative. Albertalli deliberately subverts this, which was refreshing!
I also appreciated the layers and complexity to various characters. This isn’t a Utopia and people aren’t perfect. Molly’s grandmother, despite being vocally supportive of her daughter’s bisexuality, makes off-kilter racist and fatphobic comments. Cassie and Molly can both be selfish and self-centered (which makes sense, given that they’re twins!). Their aunt Nadine, a single lady with four dogs, is homophobic. The characters felt like they could be real people. In that same vein, the dialogue was excellent! The teens sound like teens, and the adults sound like adults. The conversations are never stilted or awkward, even though at times Albertalli will emphasize the pauses and stutters that can occur in real conversations.
The main criticism I’ve seen surrounding this book is its alleged obsession with boys and boyfriends and being in a relationship, and that the main character appears to only find self-worth once she’s in a relationship. While I understand that viewpoint, I can’t agree with it. Molly’s confidence is not dependent upon a relationship. From what I saw, the issue was that she mostly felt lonely and isolated from her friends, who were already embarking on that chapter in their lives. She also wanted to love and be loved – I don’t see anything wrong with a female character wanting that, especially since it doesn’t consume her. She has other issues and concerns besides boyfriends – namely, her relationship with her twin sister Cassie, who she worries is growing distant. Also, even if Molly’s desire to have a boyfriend teeters on the obsessive (it doesn’t, in my opinion), she’s seventeen! Remember what it was like to be seventeen? The tiniest things can seem like life or death. When you’re seemingly the only one in your friend group who hasn’t dated, and you’re dealing with fatphobia that makes you think you’re undesirable, of course this is going to be on your mind!
Speaking of fatphobia. It’s important to note that Molly is fat, and she stays fat, and she gets a boyfriend anyway. Maybe if Molly were your standard thin girl this resolution would be played out, but the thing is, fat girls hardly ever get to see themselves as the love interest. As Molly herself says, fat girls in movies are the joke, not the girlfriend. So for Molly’s storyline to culminate in her falling in love with someone who also loves her and finds her desirable is pretty damn awesome. I don’t think this sends the message that fat girls are only worthy if they find someone to love them – I think it sends the message fat girls can be loved. It may not seem like a big deal, but imagine being a fat teenage girl who has never seen someone who looks like her be loved and desired. It’s affirming. Like Molly’s mother says, nobody needs a significant other, but it’s okay to want one. Of course it is.
Plus, Molly’s freaking awesome. I loved her as a protagonist; she’s creative, artsy, witty, but can also succumb to jealousy and pettiness. In other words, she’s real. She also grows more and more confident over the course of the novel; though she is initially somewhat passive, she begins to assert herself as time goes on. When some douchebag at a party tells her she’s gorgeous “for a big girl” she responds with “fuck you.” It’s an amazing moment.
This is definitely a Young Adult novel in that its characters act like teens and their problems are reminiscent of teen problems, but I say that as a good thing. The relationships in this book are fraught with misunderstandings and miscommunication that might make us adults claw at our hair, but I think for teens this book would be quite relatable! Overall, this was a super fun, cheerful read with an overwhelmingly positive message throughout. Loved it and would highly recommend!