C O N T A I N S S P O I L E R S !!!
Welcome to our new discussion feature! We’ve realized that sometimes a review isn’t enough. More and more, we want to share our thoughts using actual textual examples… AKA ‘SPOILERS.’ It is, of course, rude to give away too much in book reviews, although it is a delicate line to walk. You don’t want a review to have no examples, but you can’t push it too far. There are always spoiler tags, of course… but we’ve wanted to write full-on essays about certain books, and tags aren’t good enough anymore. We need to write more down!
This time around, I, Ellen, want to discuss a book that I read the day of its release and really enjoyed. This books is freaking adorable! Yes, this post is a discussion of The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli.
A Summary of The Upside of Unrequited
SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS!
Molly Peskin-Suso is almost out of high school, but hasn’t completed any romantic rites of passage typical for her age. She hasn’t held hands with anyone, or kissed, or had a boyfriend. The idea of sex is like, whoa now. She’s had plenty of crushes, though – twenty-six of them! Molly definitely wants to experience love, but hasn’t found the bravery to put her heart at risk.
Molly’s twin sister, Cassie, however, is a player. She hooks up with girls left and right. One night, though, at an under-18 club, Molly runs into a charismatic girl, Mina, who would be perfect for Cassie. Molly introduces the pair, and her intuition was spot-on. Mina and Cassie hit it off.
But Molly feels left behind as her twin falls in love. Trying to move Molly into the deep end, Cassie tries to nudge her sister together with Will, Mina’s cute bestie, but the sparks simply aren’t there. Molly is feeling attracted, however, to her coworker, Reid.
Reid is tall, husky, and adorkable, and Molly is into him. Reid and Molly begin to hang out, and Molly is amazed at how she can be herself with Reid — the Molly she is with family and friends — right from the get-go. Being social hasn’t been easy for Molly, because while Cassie is willowy and thin, Molly is curvaceous and heavy. Being a fat girl, people have always made unsolicited comments about Molly’s weight, and it makes her anxious and insecure. Self-image is a major stumbling block for Molly, but she’s moving through it.
Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court made gay marriage legal across the country, and Molly’s moms, Patty and Nadine, celebrate by getting engaged. There’s a lot to be happy about, but Molly is disturbed by the growing distance between Cassie and herself as her twin makes her relationship with Mina official. How can new love cause such loss?
To make matters worse, Molly suspects that her good friend, Olivia, who just got dumped by her long-time boyfriend, is attracted to Reid, and he to her.
The knots unravel, however. Cassie and Molly talk, and promise to stay close. Olivia and Molly talk, and apparently all Reid talks about to Olivia is Molly, Molly, Molly. Reid and Molly talk, and become boyfriend and girlfriend.
At Nadine and Patty’s wedding, the unraveled knots tie themselves into a big bow. Molly realizes that relationships move some people apart and others together, but those shifts are natural and part of life. Finally, she sees the joy in it.
Was The Upside of Unrequited ‘Too Cute?’
Even as this book reached its crisis point, I knew that everything was going to be okay. Because the tone of the book is quite lighthearted. If a person prefers darker fare, if they like complex notes instead of effervescent bubbles, perhaps The Upside of Unrequited isn’t the beverage, er, I mean book for them.
This novel was a strawberry mimosa — only boozy enough to cause an excess of giggles. Molly deals with some very real issues and doubts, but she conquers them in the end, and everyone gets a happily-ever-after. So yeah, this book was ‘cute,’ but it really depends on the individual reader to decide if it’s not meaningful enough for them.
Personally, I really liked the novel. Perhaps I would have loved it had there been differences, but The Upside of Unrequited was perfect for what it was trying to be.
“Being fat and happy and in love is still a radical act.”
Molly’s weight and size are never hashed out with specifics or numbers. We’re simply told that Molly is not thin, she’s not ‘normal-sized’ — she’s fat. Some of the most wow-ing parts of the book, I thought, were the moments where people made unsolicited remarks about her body.
- At school, boys publicly mocked her ‘unattractive’ body type and appearance relative to other girls.
- At a party, a guy tells Molly that she’s “fucking gorgeous for a big girl.”
- At a family dinner, Molly’s grandmother gives her a passive-aggressive lecture about portion sizes, health, and being attractive.
Receiving unsolicited comments on one’s appearance happens to everyone — we all get complimented or critiqued without asking for it. But big girls and women get unsolicited criticism most of all. Like, to a staggering and unacceptable degree.
When I was about fifteen, I was bending over to pick something up and my Grandfather said really loudly to my dad (so that I’d overhear) that my butt was certainly getting very big.
It was so completely and outrageously over the line, but it was said and it was received. That comment festered in me for years. But, when I read Lindy West’s memoir, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, and realized… I got one comment my entire life about being too big. I’m lucky, because girls and women larger than me get unasked-for remarks about their bodies every fucking day.
Real people like Lindy West, and book characters like Molly Peskin-Suso, have to build their self-esteem out of bullet-deflecting titanium to live and be happy, because the world is full of assholes who try to make sure fat people aren’t at peace with their bodies.
In The Upside of Unrequited, Molly remembers how her size has deflated moments of happiness:
This perfect boy, whom I’d noticed around camp for weeks, who was now miraculously sitting beside me, and who had—even more miraculously—spoken to me first. But I was suddenly frozen and electrically self-conscious. My thighs felt enormous, and I was acutely aware of the waistband of my shorts digging into the fat on my stomach. It occurred to me that Sean wouldn’t be talking to me if he knew about the shorts and the fat and the waistband.
And Lindy West writes:
When I think back on my teenage self, what I really needed to hear wasn’t that someone might love me one day if I lost enough weight to qualify as human—it was that I was worthy of love now, just as I was. Being fat and happy and in love is still a radical act.
The Upside of Unrequited is all about beginners in love. Becky Albertalli also gave us a main character who faces a greater than usual challenge in that respect. Because as Lindy West writes, a vocal part of our society has negative opinions on “being fat and happy and in love.” For Molly, falling in love must go hand in hand with falling in love with herself. That means shaking off the doubts that people have put in her head about her attractibility and worth.
Albertalli was a champion for same-sex romance with her first book, Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda, and she carries over those themes to The Upside of Unrequited. She also grows her message about the diverse nature of love. This time, she’s telling us that not only is gender irrelevant to romance, but size and appearance are as well.
A Scene I Would Have Liked To See
I realized that in The Upside of Unrequited, Molly and Mina only have one scene alone together, and that was the first scene in the book.
The first thing that happens in a story has a lot of power, and I liked how Molly and Mina had a weird connection in a bathroom. All too soon, Cassie and Mina are going off alone, but I wanted more of Mina’s platonic, yet weirdly magnetic, chemistry with just Molly.
Molly’s struggle with Cassie’s sudden emotional distance was resonant. If you’ve ever had your best friend fall in love and forget about you, you know how it sucks! Molly and Cassie come to terms with it, but I think a scene with Mina and Molly, mirroring the way they immediately clicked, could have been awesome. They could have talked about or done anything, but just one extra scene could have let Mina fall into the Peskin-Suso family a little more snugly.
I Loved Molly’s Voice
A few times in the book, Molly notes how certain moments seemed “Valencia filtered.” I think that’s a great way to describe how Molly’s voice and observations made ordinary things seem special. Molly is, herself, a Valencia filter.
Take the first line in the book:
I’m on the toilet at the 9:30 Club, and I’m wondering how mermaids pee.
I just love that. Albertalli gave Molly a whimsical, innocent mind that snags on delightful details, and it was so much fun to follow along.
When a tender moment happens between any two people, I turn into an eleven-year-old boy. It is my most consistent talent.
ME TOO, MOLLY. ME TOO.
The Bottom Line
The Upside of Unrequited may be too sweet for people with certain tastes, but it is a fantastic literary desert for people craving a lighthearted read. It has a fantastic protagonist and narrator in Molly, whose first attempts and stumbles still had me, a 27 year-old reader, relating. The most important message of the book, in my eyes, was its body positivity, and Molly’s introspections on the subject made this novel more substantial.
This was an extremely solid sophomore novel from Becky Albertalli!