The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
Genre: YA contemporary | Diversity: anxious MC & queer side characters
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
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.
I’ve put off writing this review for two reasons: (1) I can’t seem to pare my gushing feelings down into coherent thoughts and (2) I’ve seen dozens of reviews going around and I’m not entirely sure that I have anything to add.
I picked up The Upside of Unrequited after hearing a lot of buzz about the diversity: Molly is fat and Jewish; her twin sister Cassie is a lesbian and dating a pansexual Korean-American; the girls have a biracial two-mom family, and a big element of the plot is the moms planning their official wedding after same-sex marriage is legalized in the U.S. All of this sounds like a lot of info-dumping, but it reads so naturally, because diversity is just a part of Molly’s world.
I will say this: Molly’s voice resonated with me so fucking much. More than any fictional character has in a long while. I could talk about so many different elements of this story—the #OwnVoices fat rep, the biracial lady-loving family, the nerd references, the incorporation of texting that didn’t feel at all forced—but I’m going to stay in my lanes for this review.
I can honestly say that this is the first book in memory that talks so openly about two things that were such an important part of my life—
mental health rep & SSRIs.
Right away, we find out that Molly takes Zoloft, which, for those unfamiliar, is a popular SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor)—drugs commonly prescribed for a range of things, but commonly known as anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds. Meds like Zoloft help a depressed or anxious person get their brain chemistry back to a base level, rather than being debilitated by anxiety or stuck in a grey-cloud-filtered world. I have not taken Zoloft, but I’ve taken several of her cousins; although I’m not longer medicated (because I’m lucky), I began taking SSRIs when I was 17.
Why am I talking about meds? Because Becky Albertalli does such a great job of showing that taking Zoloft is just a part of Molly’s life. She mentions it and references her history of panic attacks. But taking anti-depressants doesn’t define Molly. She’s not controlled by her anxiety, and she doesn’t feel weird about the fact that she’s medicated. It just is. And this is so beautiful because I spent years feeling awkward about taking anti-depressants.
While I do wish that Upside had focused a little more on Molly’s anxiety, I realize that this wasn’t the book for that. It’s not a book about mental health, any more than it’s a book about same-sex marriage or biracial families or being Jewish. Mental health is an aspect of Molly’s personality, but it isn’t the whole story. It was honestly incredibly refreshing to see that representation, rather than reading about those who are really struggling. It made me feel…seen…in a weird way.
unrequited teenage love.
The reason this book made me want to cry: this is the first time I’ve read a story about a girl who has a lot of crushes, a girl who openly and desperately wants a boyfriend but doesn’t know the first thing about getting one…a girl like me.
I can’t speak for everyone. I can, however, speak for girls who struggle with self-esteem issues: this book tells it like it is.
When I was 17, I’d had probably just as many crushes as Molly, and I’d been too terrified to even talk to most of them. Perhaps because of my un-managed depression, but mostly because of my self-esteem, I often chose boys with whom I had absolutely no chance. It frustrated my friends to no end; they didn’t understand that it was less scary for me to pine after older guys who didn’t even know my name, than it was to actually get to know a guy I liked.
Ten years later, and Molly Peskin-Suso finally showed me that I was never alone in this. I was, after all, a different shade of normal on the teenage girl spectrum. There was never anything wrong with me, I was just afraid—and for good reason. And the great thing about Upside is that, while things turn out well for Molly in the end, falling in love doesn’t necessarily solve her problems. Getting a boyfriend doesn’t cure her socially anxious nature or magically make her not fat anymore. Getting a boyfriend doesn’t eradicate her self-esteem issues; it just shows her that maybe she can, one day. Which is how it goes in the real world.
Read this book for character-driven plot, for the diverse cast, for the process of watching someone grow. Read this book if you ever felt like you would never find love—or if you still feel that way. Read this book to remember that you’re not alone if you’re still learning how to love yourself. You’re ok. You’re worthy of love. You just have to believe it.
If you recently finished reading Upside and want to gush about it with someone, let’s talk in the comments!
(Also, how are y’all holding up with the book hangover after this one?!?!)
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