The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
Published by Penguin Australia on 18th April 2017
Page count: 300
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Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love-she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful. Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness-except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny, flirtatious, and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back. There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker, Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?
I really loved Becky Albertalli’s debut, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and The Upside of Unrequited was one of my most anticipated releases of 2017. Unfortunately, I didn’t love this as much as I thought I would. I struggled to connect to the characters, and ultimately didn’t find it as charming as Albertalli’s previous novel.
While characters were diverse on page (a variety of sexual orientations, including pansexual, bisexual, and homosexual; characters of colour; mental illnesses were also brought up), it felt forced and unnatural. Diversity is important, but if it’s just for the sake of checking a box, is it genuinely contributing to a more diverse literary landscape? I think part of the problem was that Albertalli spent so much time creating a diverse cast of characters, she forgot to add strong characterisation (which is something that she did so well in Simon), and characters ended up being defined by their marginalisation, instead. Molly doesn’t seem to have any interests outside of developing 27 crushes over the course of her lifetime. What does she do, aside from obsess over boys and hate herself for being overweight (and drink alcohol, even though she’s not supposed to because she is on ZOLOFT)? I do not know. Reid is described as ‘nerdy,’ but it feels like mainstream nerdy things were picked – Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, World of Warcraft – and only ever really mentioned in passing.
I disliked Cassie with the fiery passion of a thousand suns, so I guess that counts for something. As Cassie is a Very Terrible Person and Molly… is unable to define herself outside of other people, Cassie frequently uses her sister as a means to an end. Por ejemplo: she publicly embarasses Molly by telling the story of Molly vomiting (in public) during their bat mitzvah (while wearing a microphone) to charm Mina, the girl she likes. She decides to force Molly into a relationship with Will, Mina’s best friend, so she doesn’t have to sacrifice spending time with her girlfriend to hang out with her sister. She seems to begin every sentence to Molly with, ‘no offence, but…’ To quote Todd Jacobsen, offence taken, Cassie. OFFENCE. TAKEN (you know what was offensive? Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boi on a list of terrible noughties tunes).
There was also no compelling plot – it was legitimately just Molly’s quest for a boyfriend. In fact, it felt like Twilight without the vampires. The story follows Molly gaining self-confidence, but that only happens when she gets a boyfriend. It kind of insinuated that a person isn’t complete without a partner, or adds some kind of self-worth. I get that this book was supposed to empowering for the overweight teenage girls, but as someone who was an overweight teen (and is an overweight adult), I can promise I would’ve taken the wrong message away had I read this as a teenager.
I would’ve liked to see some tighter editing (it’s kimchi folks, not kimchee). An extra star added for a brief cameo from Simon, because I really do love that book. Despite this book not being for me, I will definitely check out Albertalli’s future work (because Simon, guys).
Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.