8 March 2018
‘The Upside of Unrequited’ was Becky Albertalli’s 2017 follow-up to her massively popular YA contemporary debut, ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ (which I loved!)
I did not read this book when it first came out, but having recently seen a preview screening of the ‘Love, Simon’ adaptation which was *amazing* (and easily makes the Top 5 YA Adaptations of all time!), and what with ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ coming out next month, I thought I’d catch up on my Albertalli reads.
But I did not love this book. I did not hate it. I did not love it. I am fairly indifferent to it, overall. And I do know that some people are crazy about this story, and Molly Peskin-Suso’s quest to break her streak of crushes by getting her first kiss and boyfriend … and that’s wonderful. But this book just left me so lukewarm.
The novel has a backdrop of the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. Molly and her sister Cassie, plus baby brother Xavier, are the children of two mums – Nadine and Patty. Cassie is also a lesbian, embarking on her first real relationship with the lovely Mina. Molly, meanwhile, has experienced 27 crushes in her lifetime and no romantic reciprocation (or so she thinks). The meeting of two boys – Mina’s friend Will, or her new co-worker Reid – sets Molly on a path to figuring herself out, and learning to love the body she’s in.
While reading this rather slow-burn of a contemporary YA, I did think how much goodwill Albertalli may have racked up with her wildly popular ‘Simon vs.’ – as well as how much more patience readers seemingly have for US authors of “quiet” YA. I personally love “quiet” contemporary novels – it’s a term used for anything that doesn’t have a rollicking action plot and is family or friendship focused, often with a lot of interiority – all of which, ‘The Upside of Unrequited’ has. It’s all from Molly’s perspective, and seeing as she’s particularly hung up on her body-image there is a lot of internal angst and anxiety (which she also takes medication for). Molly doesn’t just narrate events as they unfold, she tends to pick them apart, dissect and stress over them – it’s a very tightly-wound narrative voice to be stuck with.
It’s also a book that meanders for a while before figuring out its due-course. There’s no build-up to the moment of legalization of gay marriage in the U.S., it comes on page 85 of this 336-page book and catches all the characters off-guard and as a total surprise. But once it’s legalized, that becomes the end-point and building climax to the plot – when Molly’s mums decide to get hitched and throw a big party/wedding in their backyard. But before those goal-posts are established, it really is 84-pages of meandering through Molly’s teen angst as she watches Cassie’s new romance unfold, and deals with her feelings of inferiority and perhaps, increasing inconsequentially in Cassie’s life.
I just could not shake this feeling that, had ‘Upside’ been written by an Australian author – readers would have been a lot less forgiving of the meandering, and the while it takes for Molly and Albertalli to figure out where they’re going. But for me, it firmly remained a novel of low-stakes, and that was tough to slog through.
It must be said though, that the novel does have a cast of diverse and inclusive characters … and no wonder, when Albertalli made it abundantly clear in interviews that she owes a lot to the sensitivity readers who helped shape this cast. I will just say that even though the characters were clearly written with the utmost respect to their various backgrounds, I did not care about them. They were rather anaemic props, to me. And sometimes Albertalli’s grab for “teachable moments” made me wince – like at the wedding, when Molly and Cassie’s often un-PC grandmother apparently makes this faux pas;
Cassie wanders over to meet us. “So, I just had the best conversation with Grandma.”
She grimaces, and I laugh.
“Grandma has just informed me that when a bisexual woman marries another woman, she becomes a lesbian.”
“Oh no,” Olivia says.
“And I’m like … Grandma, just no. No. Infinite side-eye.”
For me, I just felt like quite a few of the characters became conduits for these sorts of not-so-subtle lessons in wokeness.
The shining point of the novel for me though, was Molly’s romance. Less her does-he-or-doesn’t-he-like-me with Mina’s friend Will, but the slow-burn and then instant ignition with Reid, her ‘Lord of the Rings’ obsessed co-worker. Their attraction led to some nice moments of clarity for Molly, and some pretty hot make-out sessions … and it was in these moments that I read Albertalli loosening up as a writer, and really letting go and allowing her characters’s instincts to lead scenes, rather than any social-messaging she wanted to engineer.
Overall I still ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ is one of the most perfect slices of contemporary YA written in recent memory. I am ridiculously excited for ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ and, for me personally, I am just going to pretend like ‘The Upside of Unrequited’ didn’t really happen.