The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
Published April 11, 2017
Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso has had twenty-six crushes and no relationships. Fearing rejection, Molly never puts herself out there, because fat girls have to be careful. But when Molly’s willowy blonde flirtatious twin falls hard for a new girl, Molly fears losing her sister and being left behind. Fortunately Cassie’s new girlfriend has a cute hipster best friend named Will who might just be crush material. There’s just one problem, she might be falling for her co-worker Reid, an awkward fantasy fan with a season pass to the Ren Faire, instead.
When Molly’s family and friends were first introduced, I worried that all of the wonderful diversity was an attempt to tick every box but wouldn’t be fleshed out into three-dimensional characters or explored in any meaningful way. Fortunately I was wrong. Each of the characters are well-written and have flaws and personality quirks that set them apart.
One of my favourite things about this book is the rare positive depiction of parents in YA, and not just parents but gay inter-racial couple parents! Patty and Nadine are obviously loving mothers who care deeply about their family and each other. They successfully walk the line between being friendly with their teenagers and knowing when to lay down the line about inappropriate behaviour or intervene as needed. In fact, if I had read this book at the beginning of the month, they definitely would have made my Top Ten Tuesday on Favourite Moms in Literature!
I also loved that there was such a focus on women and on their relationships (platonic, romantic, and familial). I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many different types of relationships between women in a single YA book before, from sisters Cassie and Molly, to engaged couple Patty and Nadine, to young love, to Molly and Cassie’s other friends, their cousin Abby and their friend Olivia.
But while Albertalli plants the seeds for these fabulous relationships, I think the novel is so short that some of them remain under-developed. With the exception of their first meeting, most of Cassie and Mina’s relationship develops off the page. This decision does mean that the reader, like Molly, feels isolated by the lack of detail about the relationship and how Cassie and Mina interact as a couple, but it means we never fully understand Cassie’s motivations in shutting her sister out, and she comes across as a fairly unlikable and selfish character as a result.
As much as these people all care about each other, I appreciated the fact that not everything is perfect. Grandma means well but makes racist comments and comments negatively on Molly’s weight. Nadine’s sister is homophobic, and the sisters and parent-daughter relationships experience strain over the course of the novel.
Admittedly the miscommunication sometimes made me cringe, but I think it’s an indicator of just how well Albertalli writes realistic teenage characters. Teenagers with crushes can be stupid when it comes to first relationships, prioritizing their boyfriend or girlfriend over their siblings and friends, and I think the awkward does he/she like me or not reads as very true to life as well.
I think there’s been some criticism over the obsession with boys and the desire to have a boyfriend that comes through so strongly in The Upside of Unrequited. I can see the merit in this and I’m usually quick to critique an overabundance of romance, but I also (vaguely) remember what it’s like to be sixteen or seventeen and to wonder what it would be like to have a boyfriend, and to have such a bad crush on someone that you walk into a door frame because they talked to you (yes, that has actually happened to me). Add to that Molly’s sister being in a serious relationship and the fear that she’ll lose Cassie to the girlfriend and yes, I understand the boy crazy in this book.
Ultimately I really liked Molly. She’s creative and crafty, always coming up with recipes, decorations, and even dress alterations off of pinterest. Although she’s a little passive as a protagonist, Molly has a few great moments where she stands up for herself that made me want to cheer. Also the message is generally positive. A fat girl protagonist falls for a boy and he likes her exactly the way she is and falls in love with her not despite, but because of, who she is. Molly doesn’t lose weight, undergo a makeover, or change her hobbies to snag the boy, he’s already smitten. Also, Molly and Reid are really adorable together.
The issue I had with The Upside of Unrequited is the same one I had with Queens of Geek. They’re both important books with a message that provide representation for marginalized groups and I’m thrilled they exist and do recommend both of them, but they’re a little fluffy and light on plot for my personal tastes. As much as I enjoy a light read every now and then, I wish there had been more tension beyond the internal angsting of who will Molly choose and will she make a move?