Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love. 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. 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 a chubby Tolkien superfan with a season pass to the Ren Faire, and there's absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?
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The Upside of Unrequited also features a diverse cast of side characters. Molly's sister, Cassie is gay and her new girlfriend is pansexual. But, the characters I found most interesting were her parents. One parent is gay (I think), one is bisexual, one Jewish, one African American, and each of them have had one pregnancy to form their family. I found the family dynamics fascinating and loved that it portrayed an LGBTQ couple who had met young, survived family issues (infertility, homophobia) and were as strong as ever. It is lovely to see a Young Adult novel that features such positive parental role models. The parents are supportive and involved in their children's lives, but also give them a little room to breathe. The girls sometimes push the limits, but never doubt that they are loved.
While the characters truly make The Upside of Unrequited worth a read, I did find the plot a little lackluster. I was certainly not invested in Molly's love life the way that I was in Simon's in Simon Vs The Homo Sapians Agenda. There was some attempt at a love triangle, but I think the author purposely wrote two of the characters without any real chemistry so there was never a feeling that the "right" people wouldn't end up together. However, this may be a little less obvious to an actual young adult reader than it is through my "mom eyes".
Ultimately, The Upside of Unrequited is a sweet and endearing story about a character who finds love and learns that even the people who appear the most confident have their own inner monologue of doubt - but that if you push through that, wonderful things can happen.
There were so many reasons why I fell in love with this book, but let me start with the three biggest reasons. They way Becky handles tough issues to talk about/the relationships. Not only was Molly's mom's amazing at handling the issues when they came up, but the way that Molly is able to talk to them is something I loved seeing. So many times in YA we see parents who aren’t even there or ones who don’t talk/listen to their kids. So I loved seeing parents who actually listened and didn’t try to control everything. They also talk about birth control, sex, drinking, love, anxiety, etc. These are issues that mostly get glossed over in YA, or get dealt with in the absolute wrong way, were handled so beautifully in UPSIDE. To go into a book, and see an accurate representation of a girl who has anxiety was amazing.
The second reason, the amount of diversity in this book. Not only in sexuality, but in race as well. I loved that a majority of this cast was on the LGBTQIA spectrum. Pansexual, bisexual, there’s even a mention of asexual. I loved seeing a book that acknowledges all the amazing ways that people differ from each other, without harming or using typical stereotypes. You had these amazing characters, who have all different preferences and it’s the most natural beautiful thing in the world. Several times this book made me cry because of how amazing the rep was in it. So many different types of characters and you can’t help but fall in love with each one.
And the third reason, now it may not seem like much to others, but Molly is fat. Let me repeat that. MOLLY IS FAT. Growing up I dealt a lot with being fat and feeling unwanted. I spent my life surrounded by skinny MCs and to have a fat MC who isn’t ashamed of her body, it made me cry. Not only is she not ashamed but she isn’t focused on being skinny, and she actively talks about her love for food. Reading this book was so unreal to me, because every thought in Molly’s head, every comment someone has made to her, has happened to me. And to see the beautiful way that her family, and even Molly herself, stand up to these people made me really proud to read this book. This may be a small reason for a lot of people, but for me, it was the entire reason I picked up this book. And it just feels so good being able to see me in a character like Molly.
Everything about this book worked really well. Accurate representation, diversity, tough issues, fat main character. Everything was just so spot on with this book that it has instantly become one of my absolute favorites. Becky gets people. Never have a read a book where I came out liking every character, but that’s exactly what happened with Upside. Becky just writes characters who get to the heart of you. She gives you characters who remind you of being 17, lost and alone in this world. She gives you adult characters who are wise and amazing and who make you want to be that type of parent for your kids (if you plan on having any). She deals with tough issues in a beautiful and heartfelt way that you can’t help but get all warm and fuzzy on the inside. This book is one of the happiest and feel-good books I’ve read in a very long time. I recommend this one with all my heart, and I can’t wait to see what Becky writes next. This book has instantly solidified her as one of my fave authors.
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.
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.
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 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.