This is the second time in my entire life in which I’ve actually gotten up off my ass and bought a book the day it came out, and oh god, am I glad I did. If this had been a library book I was reading, I would have finished it and immediately bolted to Barnes and Noble to own it. Most of us who make a habit of reading YA know Becky Albertalli from Simon and the Homo-Sapiens Agenda, but this is, dare I say it, even better. This is a story that I, a mentally ill, bisexual, fat, young adult girl desperately needed, and I’m so grateful that I managed to get a copy as soon as I did.
The Upside of Unrequited is centered around a girl named Molly and her sister Cassie. Cassie is a force to be reckoned with, a fiercely confident lesbian with more than a little sexual experience under her belt, while Molly is a much more reserved, creative soul who pines after the affection her sister so easily receives. When Cassie finds the perfect girlfriend, a half-Korean girl named Mina, the two of them are determined to set Molly up with Mina’s best friend Will. But Molly’s met someone else: her cute, chubby, nerdy coworker Reid, who she feels she can be herself around. But a relationship with Will means less chance of growing apart from Cassie, and a relationship with Reid points to a future Molly isn’t sure of.
The amount of representation in this book is something YA authors should be using as a model for making their own writing diverse. There’s an abundance of POC characters, and bisexual and pansexual characters whose orientations are mentioned by name. There’s even a mention of asexual people. On top of that, Molly talks about previously having a crush on a trans guy, and she openly acknowledges her mental illness without the whole story being about her struggle with it. She mentions her inability to drink while on her meds; we see her routinely take them. The idea of a character having mental illness and not having that be a huge chunk of her character is something I’m not used to in any fiction, let alone YA, and I’m insanely grateful to see it here.
For me, dialogue can make or break a book, especially a contemporary novel like this one. Unnatural sounding conversations between characters, or even unnatural sounding inner monologue, really drag me out of the zone and make it hard for me to get into a reading rhythm and read big chunks without getting distracted. Becky Albertalli is better than any other YA author I’ve read at keeping that dialogue and inner monologue natural and modern. She allows conversations to veer off as they naturally would, but comes back home with them to get the point across before the conversation is over. Reading the dialogue doesn’t feel like a quick and cheap way to get the reader up to speed, as some authors have the habit of doing. I very clearly imagined the inflections of their individual voices, and it all felt effortless. The dialogue is woven with modern pop culture references that keeps it in the present, from mentions of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Reid is a breath of insanely fresh air. After years of the excruciating boredom that reading young make love interests in het fiction has become, seeing a chubby, nerdy, genuinely kind guy take the place as lead love interest is amazing to me. There are plenty of books from that chubby nerdy guy’s point of view, but I’ve never before read one that’s told from the girl’s point of view, a girl who’s genuinely attracted to him. He’s got so much character and personality and he’s not tall, dark, traditionally handsome, or broody. If more straight romance novels were like this, I would be reading a whole lot more of them.
One of my favorite parts of reading this was how much I saw myself in Molly. Sure, we have some fundamental differences, but for the most part, it was a ton of representation that I could look at and relate to. I couldn’t even imagine finding a book about a mentally ill fat girl when I was a teenager, so I’m so glad this exists now, because in no way was it too late for me to read it, and I really hope it reaches more fat mentally ill girls, of any age. On the other hand, sometimes Molly’s inner monologue hit so close to home that it was hard to read (“Maybe there aren’t seven and a half billion people in the world. Maybe there are seven and a half billion and one. I’m the one.”). But that only made her journey throughout the story even more meaningful to me.
Something I was really worried about when picking this up was whether or not I would have any resentment toward Cassie as I was reading it. As someone who’s been in Molly’s position most of her life, the fear of being abandoned in favor of a significant other is extremely real and always crushing. But I came out of it loving Cassie almost as much as Mina did; if Molly is one side of me, Cassie is the other, consciously talking about feminist issues and the social constructs built around misogyny (a favorite quote of mine from her is, “I mean, I think people have this mentality that sex is only real if it involves a penis.”). These are all important things to talk about, and I don’t think they’re discussed enough in YA. Cassie is the girl I aspire to be, which makes it impossible for me to resent her.
I am not a reader of straight romance on any other day, so I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the way that Becky Albertalli writes romance, even a straight relationship, got me so goddamn invested. She has this way of making the readers know how Molly is feeling before Molly does; we observe her falling in love with Reid before she realizes that’s what’s happening, just by her habits around him, their conversations. It’s… dare I say it… adorable. So for making me invested in a heterosexual couple, kudos, Becky. Kudos.
This is a book I strongly recommend to anyone, no matter their age, gender identity, orientation, body image, or thoughts on love stories in general. It’s something I feel the world needed to exist, and I’m extremely glad it does.