I had the pleasure of reading Becky Albertalli’s newest accomplishment this month, The Upside of Unrequited. This book puts you in feels, especially if at any time in your life you were a teenage girl of questionable proportions who thought “what the fuck are you talking about?” a lot when people were talking to you. (In case you’re wondering, that’s 99% of all teenage girls. I’m assuming that the last 1% are all sociopaths or in a coma.)
“Upside” is about Molly Peskin-Suso, seventeen. She has a lot going on. Her parents are a bi-racial lesbian couple. She’s a chubby, Jewish, super crafty Pinterest-queen. She’s starting a new part-time job at a chic boutique. In her young life she’s had twenty-six crushes, none of which ever came to anything. Her best friend and cousin, Abby, has moved away and started a new life. And lastly, Molly’s twin, Cassie, for the first time ever after a history of casual hookups, falls in love and suddenly and has a girlfriend. What’s more, Cassie is desperate for Molly to find a boyfriend now too, so goes out of her way to set her up with her own girlfriend’s cute, hipster friend, Will. Molly’s more into her new co-worker, Reid. But the thing is, Molly’s never been able to maneuver down the precarious path of crush to boyfriend. She’s not sure how it works, and what it comes down to it, she’s not sure she’s worth it.
Sound familiar? Yeah, that means you were probably a teenager at some point too.
So much to say about this novel. It was a difficult read for me mostly because it proved to me what a bitter adult asshole I am sometimes. I was that fat teenage girl whose friends earned themselves boyfriends and was left behind. I was that grand-daughter who had to listen to her grandmother say “you’d be so pretty if only you weren’t so fat.” I was absolutely the girl who formed crushes knowing they wouldn’t go anywhere because I was too fat to have a boyfriend.
“Even if he likes me, I’m not sure he’d like me naked. I hate that I’m even thinking that. I hate hating my body. Actually, I don’t even hate my body. I just worry everyone else might. Because chubby girls don’t get boyfriends, and they definitely don’t have sex. Not in movies—not really—unless it’s supposed to be a joke. And I don’t want to be a joke.”
― Becky Albertalli, The Upside of Unrequited
Not to make myself sound miserable or anything. I had friends, we had good times, we watched a lot of horror movies and consumed a lot of sugar to the detriment of our sanity. I was carefree, bought a lot of witty t-shirts and read a lot of books. Good times. Still, this novel struck a chord because despite all that I did do, there was just as much that I didn’t get to do. Or, also in my case, so many things I regret doing *winky face emoji.*
The first thing I would like to address about this book, is the blatant social agenda. Molly’s life is so progressive I coughed out rainbows for twenty-four hours after I binged this novel.
Gone are the days when family means mother, father, child; or husband and wife. Gone are the days were male means penis and woman means vagina. (Some would say those days never really existed, we just believed they did.) I’m all for it. Let the lives and difficulties of modern day protagonists reflect the social changes and mores of modern day humans. The new millennium has brought a shift in the definitions of love, sex, gender identity and marriage. Woohoo! Social progress is awesome! We’re almost fully-realized human beings! When aliens finally enslave our future generations they’ll be able to give us mad props on how open minded we are. After all, we did allow aliens close enough to enslave us. We’ll probably give them the right to vote in presidential elections before they tighten the noose.
I don’t have a problem with social agendas disguised as YA romances. I do feel preached to, however, when the social agenda slaps you in face. It’s courageous. Abertalli is trying to make a point. There were a few beautiful moments that celebrated social progress, and I appreciated those. A new day has truly arrived. Honestly, anyone who does need this point made to them probably would never read this book. They probably read non-fiction books about turning road kill into stuffed animals and tune into a lot of weather reports.
That was judgey. Well, this whole blog is judgey. Sorry not sorry.
I know I’m not the only un-teen who has read this, and I had to keep reminding myself as I went that this is a book for teens. Despite how I feel that the agenda is unnecessary because most of the target audience finds sexual preference about as interesting as preferred ice cream flavor, Albertalli is trying shape young minds. Go humanity! Yay!
There was a thread on Twitter concerning the idea that young chubby girls cannot possess any kind of self-worth unless they achieve their romantic goals, or at least that books like this perpetuate that idea. And honestly, I can see where people might be coming from.
In Albertalli’s defense, she makes it very clear from page one that Molly Peskin-Suso wants a boyfriend like most chubby kids want cake (or in my case fried chicken). She doesn’t form her unrequited crushes by accident. They are a result of a deep-seeded desire to experience the floaty, dreamy, sugar-coated, dancing on air sensation that happens when you love someone and they love you back. It’s not a desire that only chubby girls experience; it’s probably the most human desire that a person can have. (Other than compulsive over-eating and condemning things we don’t understand.) To quote the great cinematic endeavor Moulin Rouge “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” A movie about can-can courtesans and bohemian artists may not be everyone’s cup of tea (or absinthe), but you have to admit that’s a pretty profound statement with universal meaning. We are programmed to love. It’s a biological imperative. This programming always existed since we were still mostly covered and fur and only communicated telepathically (yeah that was a Sense8 reference, you know you love that show too). All we’ve done over the years is make the process infinitely more complicated. For instance:
Despite the genetalia I was born with, do I associate more as a man or a woman?
Despite my gender identity, am I attracted to men, women or both?
Would I care about being with someone whose sex did not match their gender identity?
Okay, I know my gender identity and I’m attracted to someone, but are they hetero-, homo-, bi-, pan- or asexual and how do I find out?
How many beers will I have to consume before I’m brave enough to ask? (Because that’s right girls, it’s not just up to the guys anymore. Yay progress!)
Seriously, someone should make a flow chart. I’m sure someone has made a flow chart. I should find the flow chart.
I think more than anything Albertalli was just trying to get the point across that you don’t know unless you try. You can’t cry over what could be if you’re not willing to try and make it a will be. Wow, someone should put that on a poster with kittens. Growing up is hard, trusting people to do right by you is harder. But no one gains anything by waiting and wishing for everything you want to fall right into your lap. Ultimately, that’s what this novel is about. It’s not about how chubby girls get boyfriends and suddenly love themselves. It’s about acceptance of yourself and others as they are, communication (always), and the good old-fashioned try. And, for god’s sake, abandoning that teenage mentality that when something goes wrong it’s the end of the world, because it’s really not. Awesome lessons for any teenager with no self-esteem and even less confidence.
“But you know, there’s an upside here. Because when you spend so much time just intensely wanting something, and then you actually get the thing? It’s magic.”
― Becky Albertalli, The Upside of Unrequited
Going back to the Twitter thread, I think it’s important that people understand that your self-esteem doesn’t hinge on winning the boy or the girl. Even with all of our social progress, there are too many girls out there who still believe that unless they’re in a relationship or being desired in some way, they’re worthless. This, frankly, isn’t true and never has been. I believe Molly Peskin-Suso’s journey exemplifies this assertion, and this is a social agenda I can get behind. Without giving up the ending, I believe Molly’s story is much more about confidence than romance. Despite outside influences and pressures, Molly makes a lot of really good decisions for herself, and that’s what’s important here. I’ve been happily single for years, and the older I get the more I believe that the only thing I would ever give up my freedom for is a madman in a blue telephone box. If you didn’t get that reference, that’s alright, just continue on with your life not knowing what you’re missing.
I rated this book five stars solely based on the feels it gave me, because even though not all of them were good, a book that can affect you is a good book. Also, it deserves all five for the effortless wit that I treasure in novels of any kind. It is an easy, fast read that even people who have all their shit figured out could appreciate. Albertalli effectively captures the terrifying state of liking someone and not being sure how, if, or when they will ever like you back. Good writing, good reading. AND if you haven’t read it, Albertalli’s first novel: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a damn adorable read as well.
“There’s just something terrifying about admitting you like someone. In a way, it’s actually easier when there’s no chance of anything happening. But there’s this threshold where things suddenly become possible. And then your cards are on the table. And there you are, wanting, right out in the open.”
― Becky Albertalli, The Upside of Unrequited