“But there’s this awfulness that comes when a guy thinks you like him. It’s as if he’s fully clothed and you’re naked in front of him. It’s like your heart suddenly lives outside your body, and whenever he wants, he can reach out and squeeze it.
Unless he happens to like you back.”
Thank you very much to Penguin Random House and Netgalley for providing a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.
I am definitely going against the grain with my review of The Upside of Unrequited, but hear me out. I enjoyed the novel, but did I like it as much as Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda? Sorry, but no.
It’s probably unfair to compare these books to each other, but The Upside of Unrequited sort-of works as a companion to Albertalli’s first novel, so I couldn’t help but contrast the two. In Simon, we were introduced to a wide-range of fantastic characters, all individual and emphatically real. In Upside, the characters felt a little two-dimensional for my liking. They just didn’t do it for me.
The Upside of Unrequited follows seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso, who has had twenty-six crushes (twenty-five if you don’t include Lin-Manuel Miranda) and each of those crushes has been decidedly unrequited. Her twin sister Cassie tells her to woman up and just date someone already, but Molly is terrified of rejection. That may have something to do with her issues with weight and her intense anxiety, for which she takes Zoloft. So she is careful. But then, Cassie falls in love and Molly feels as though she and her sister are drifting apart. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend’s best friend is a cute hipster boy who may or may not like Molly. Molly might just be able to win her sister back, right? The only problem is Molly’s co-worker, Reid. He is a chubby Tolkien and Game of Thrones fan and not at all Molly’s type. Except that he is.
“I can’t seem to shake this perpetual awareness of being Molly.”
Before I dissect the characters, let me explain how ecstatic I was at the level of diversity in this novel. All books should aspire to be as diverse, but what makes this novel stand apart is how normal Albertalli made it out to be. Of course diversity is normal, but these days, you would be hard-pressed to find an author – I don’t mean an #OwnVoices author – who understands this. So many authors freeze at the mere mention of diversity, or, when they’re called out, either try to justify their actions, or make a mockery of diversity by adding a few gay or POC background characters to be like, “Hey, look at my books, such diversity.” I won’t name names but I’m sure you can think of a few authors.
In The Upside of Unrequited, there was so much diversity there was almost an overload (I mean that as a compliment). Molly was fat and Jewish, Cassie was a lesbian, one of their mothers was bi while the other was gay and a POC, and Cassie’s girlfriend Mina was Korean and pansexual. And while I was so happy to see such diverse characters in a YA novel, none of the characters (aside from Molly) felt realistic. It is one thing to feature so many diverse characters, another to never address that diversity. Of course one could say that was Albertalli’s intent: diversity is a normal part of life – we don’t have to always address it. But this is a YA novel that focuses on LGBT people, mental health, sexuality, religion and race – how could you not address it?! What is that old saying? Ah yes – quality over quantity.
I sort of feel like the odd one out here, because everyone I know – including reviewers I trust – seem to love this book, but I was let down by the characters. They were all lacking the definitive, complex personality of a real person. To me they read like characters on a page, superficial attempts at realism, whereas in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda the characters were real people to me. I could connect with them. I didn’t connect with one single character in Upside, not even the protagonist.
“If I like a guy, I’m supposed to tell him. Maybe in Cassie’s world, you can do that and have it end in making out. But I’m not so sure it works that way for fat girls.”
Molly was a conundrum. There were times I almost felt something for her, but her inability to stand up for herself grew tiring. I totally understand that her anxiety prevented her from behaving like a typical seventeen-year-old would, but that didn’t stop me from growing annoyed. It wasn’t even until about 60% of the way through the novel that I started to like Molly. Her continual self-deprecating personality incensed me, but occasionally, she would stop thinking only about herself and put herself in someone else’s shoes. It was these rare moments where I could connect with Molly and her situation. I know every teenager feels like high school is the peak of their lives and they must go through full, wide-ranging experiences of adulthood by the age of seventeen, but it is not so. I think my eyes rolled to the very back of my head when Molly said, with complete sincerity, “I know I’m a late bloomer,” all because she did not have a boyfriend at the wise-old age of seventeen.
I didn’t particularly like Cassie. I found her quite selfish and, frankly, uncaring. She didn’t take anybody’s feelings into account and often spoke first and thought later. That didn’t mean she was a bad character, just an irksome one. Her relationship with Mina developed off the page, so the degree in which they cared for each other surprised me, because I didn’t see it happening: the reader was just told about it, after the fact. I read a review of this book where the reviewer thought the novel would have been stronger if we had two POVs: one from Molly and the other from Cassie, so we could also see Cassie’s relationship develop, and I have to agree. Cassie went from sharing everything with Molly, to not even telling her when she and Mina became official. Why the sudden change? Getting into Cassie’s head would have helped the book.
The central reason why I didn’t enjoy this book was the plot. What plot? It felt quite stagnant and, to be honest, quite boring. Not much happens. With Simon, you have the blackmail storyline, Simon’s quest to find out the identity of his pen-pal and the up-coming school play, mixed in with Simon’s emails to Blue. There was a lot happening and Albertelli balanced each storyline perfectly. I didn’t get that same feel with this novel. The plot was really very simple and, while that is usually not an issue with me, paired with Albertelli’s writing, the story didn’t go anywhere.
“I’ve never told anyone this – not my moms, not even Cassie – but that’s the thing I’m most afraid of. Not mattering. Existing in a world that doesn’t care who I am.
It’s this whole other level of aloneness.
And maybe it’s a twin thing. I have never truly been alone in the world. I think that’s why I fear it.”
I have to admit I was disappointed in Albertalli’s writing. It wasn’t very different from her style in Simon, but I think her writing suffered due to her choice of protagonist. Molly’s inner monologue was very much: No one will ever like me, except I think this guy likes me, I’m the last virgin in the world, oh I think Mina is still a virgin too, I don’t like Reid he’s too nerdy, omg he looked at me, I have a crush on him, but I like Will, and oh Will smiled maybe I should be with him instead. There was too much contraction and teeniness for me. The writing was very simple and derivative. I wasn’t wowed like in Simon. I was let down. Also, can you even call it unrequited love when Molly never told any of her twenty-six crushes that she liked them? (I don’t think you can).
While I love coming-of-age stories, The Upside of Unrequited lacked that certain something that I found in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. The plot was uninteresting, the diversity was apparent but not discussed in detail, and the characters were superficial. The elements Albertalli attempted to include – issues regarding sexuality, mental health, and even race – did not mesh well together. They were mentioned and then never fully explored. If this book were 100 pages longer, I am confident Albertalli could have fixed the issues I found. The book could have been a strong forerunner of what it means to write a successful and timeless diverse novel. Unfortunately, that was not the case.