Monday, 29 January 2018

Review: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky AlbertalliNetGalleyThe Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli (eProof) - 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?
From Goodreads.

It's taken me quite a while to read The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, despite thinking it sounded really good. This is mainly because I was a little disappointed with her debut novel, Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. So I dithered, until recently. And now I wish I had picked it up much sooner, because this book is perfect. I have a hell of a lot to say about this book, so be warned: this review is likely to be pretty long.

Molly has had 26 crushes in her life, and nothing came of any of them, because she never did anything about it. Why? Because she's fat, and fat girls always get rejected, so what's the point? But when her twin sister ends up falling head over heels for Mina, Molly feels like they're drifting apart. They're so close, but now Molly feels like she's being forgotten. So when it seems like there's a faint possibility Mina's cute friend Will may like Molly, too, she decides not to be careful any more. It looks like it might be possible this time, so why not go for it? And as he's best friends with Mina, it'll mean not losing Cassie so much. But Molly is getting on really well with her co-worker, geeky, sweet Reid. It's so easy with him, and he's cute - even if he does where a lot of Game of Thrones and Tolkien t-shirts. Molly suddenly realises she's crushing on Reid, too. And there's more than a faint possibility that he might like her back. But Reid won't help her get her sister back.

This book is absolutely wonderful. Yes, it's a sweet, funny, cute romance, and just so adorable, but it's also a lot more than that. At least it is so for me. I related to Molly so much more than I ever expected to. Molly has issues about her weight. Or rather, other people have issues about her weight. All her life she has had people comment and insult her. Her Grandma Betty tells her she should go on a diet, a random boy tells her she's gorgeous for a heavy girl, and when she was younger, she was picked on for it. Some people, especially her Grandma, are well-meaning, but they don't realise just how much their words hurt. And I really got that. Some context: I look nothing like Molly. Instead, from the age of 14 to 28, I was the other end of the scale; due to a fast metabolism, I was underweight - super skinny. Gaining weight was a struggle, losing weight was super easy, so I had to be very careful when it came to eating. And, like with Molly, people always felt the need to comment. Random old ladies on the street loud-whispering "She's so skinny!" with disgust in their voice. Random guy in the pub saying, "You need to put on some weight, girl!" At a publishing event, where we're discussing the cover of a book, and the girl on the cover's skinniness is brought up - a girl who looks exactly like me, frame and size-wise, and the woman sitting right next to me says, "She's doesn't even look attractive." An older family member telling me they wouldn't be surprised if I died before they did. So I knew exactly what Molly was feeling - even though I fully acknowledge that, even with all the grief I got, my size was still more socially acceptable than being fat*, which is such crap.

I've read a number of books where the main characters were fat, and they also got grief for it, but there's a difference with The Upside of Unrequited. And the other books, most of the main characters had negative body image, so the focus was specifically on what they looked like, and how they felt about it. But with The Upside of Unrequited, it's not Molly's body that's the problem, it's what other people think about her size, and how they seem to think it's ok to comment on her body. Sure, what's said affects how she sees herself, but she doesn't actually hate herself because of her size; it's other people's comments that truly sting. And I cannot tell you how much I related to her. Reading this book brought back some painful memories, and my heart broke for Molly and for teenage me, but I also felt like I could cry in relief, because someone actually gets it. Someone knows how that feels, and there's validation in that.

And then there's the romance side of things, which actually relates. People's comments affect the way Molly sees herself, and how she sees herself affects how she's unable to comprehend the idea that a guy could find her attractive. And I got this, too. I never had a boyfriend when I was a teenager, and I feared one of the reasons why was because of how I looked. I just wasn't what was attractive. Curvy is what is attractive, and I have never been curvy. I more resembled a pencil. I completely understood why Molly found it really hard to imagine that anyone could find her attractive. And how hard it was for her to see other people coupling up - and seeming to drift away from her - when they seem to find it so easy, when people always fancy them, when it seems like the same for her is a complete impossibility. There's such great sadness and loneliness in that. So when it seems like there are two guys who are into her? As she is? Without changing? She can't quite believe it. And it was so, so wonderful to see her slowly come to realise that maybe she isn't unattractive, that guys might actually like her. Seriously, it made me so blood happy, it brought tears to my eyes. And I was rooting for one of those guys so much! Oh, it was just completely, completely beautiful. And it just made me feel so hopeful, for those teens who felt like I did, like Molly does that they'll realise you don't have to fit ridiculous, impossible beauty standards to be beautiful. That they are already enough as they are. And there are those who will fancy them, even if they think there won't be - not that that's anywhere near as important as them realising that they are enough already, without a girl/boyfriend telling them so, but just to believe that it's possible... I know this book would have meant the world to me, and I believe it will do for teens today.

I want to talk about mental illness for a moment. Molly has anxiety, but this isn't a story that is about Molly having anxiety. She just happens to have anxiety. I know there are some people who don't like the idea of characters who "just happen to be X minority", because your marginalisations are a massive part of who you are. And I get that. I, too, have anxiety, and though it doesn't define who I am, it is a huge part of my life, even when I'm doing ok; even if months go by where I'm not anxious, there's still the part of me, who thinks of myself as a ticking time bomb, who is quietly scared of when I will next go off. But the point is, there are times when people with mental illness do ok. You can't cure a mental illness, but you can get better. Most of books that feature mental illness are during a time when the main character is in the grips of their mental illness, and they mostly end on a hopeful note, that they can get better. The Upside of Unrequited actually shows a character while they are better. Molly has to take medication every day, there are mentions of past panic attacks, and decisions whether she should drink alcohol or not, as she's not supposed to with her medication, but she's mostly pretty much fine throughout the book. Taking her medication is like brushing her teeth, it's so normal, and something she doesn't even really think about. And it's so refreshing to see a character with mental illness who is doing ok, and so important! Because it shows those with mental illness that you can be ok, and also shows those who don't have it that people with mental illness are not really any different from them, that we're not crazy or unstable, we just have an illness, and it doesn't have to/always rule our lives. And I love that!

And while we're on the subject of marginalised groups, The Upside of Unrequited is so diverse! Molly has anxiety, as we know, and is Jewish, as is most of her family (as is Albertalli, making t #OwnVoices). Her sister, Cassie is gay, and they have two mums; Patty is bisexual, and Nadine is gay, and also black - and so Molly's extended family on Nadine;s side are also black, and her little brother, Xavier, is biracial. Cassie's girlfriend, Mina, is pansexual and Korean American. And Reid is also Jewish. There are probably other characters who I am forgetting, too. And at first, it seemed rather odd. I questioned why I thought it was so odd, because it's obviously not unrealistic, and then I started to panic, "Do I only know people like me?!" But when I thought about it, I remembered that in my family alone, there are people with mental illnesses, there are people of colour, and people from the LGBTQ* community. I could list a number of people I know from different marginalised groups. So it wasn't my privilege or my social circle. And I realised the reason why it seemed so odd is because I'm not used to seeing this much diversity in a young adult novel. When reading diverse novels, there's maybe one marginalised group that is focused on, and maybe one or two secondary characters from other marginalised groups. I can't really think of many other novels that have such a diverse cast of characters, like The Upside of Unrequited. And I think that's a problem, because it quite clearly is realistic to have a range of different people in your social circle, so why aren't our books just as diverse?

I've probably gone on enough, but The Upside of Unrequited is such an fantastic novel! And it affected me so much more than I could possibly say. I went to bed after finishing it, and just laid there for ages thinking about this book, how it's just so wonderful, and I must admit I did have a little happy cry. I so wish The Upside of Unrequited was out when I was a teenager, because it would have made all the difference to me. But I'm so, so happy it's out now, that it will hopefully find it's way into the hands of a teenager who needs it. The Upside of Unrequited is such an incredible novel, and I am so excited to read Leah on the Offbeat, when it comes out in May.

*I'm using "fat" here as a descriptor, like Molly does, not an insult. "Fat" itself is not derogatory, it's the way it's used that's derogatory.

Thank you to Puffin via NetGalley for the eProof.

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Published: 11th April 2017
Publisher: Puffin
Becky Albertalli's Website

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1 comment:

  1. This is so eloquently put- what a fabulous review! You covered all the key points beautifully- and I'm glad to hear you enjoyed this one! The Upside of Unrequited was such a pleasant surprise for me last year, and easily got into my top faves of the year. I related to Molly so much, and it was really bittersweet to hear how much you related to Molly too in regards to weight (bittersweet in that you had to feel bad about it too, rather than bittersweet you feel anything at all haha!).

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