For my first ever blog post (!!!!), I’d like to expand upon a Goodreads review I recently wrote about The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, a book I really enjoyed despite several initial misgivings.
Note: this review contains minor plot spoilers.
First, I should mention that I have not read Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, Albertalli’s much-loved debut novel. I do know that this book takes place in the same world, although Simon plays a very small role in this book. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I appreciated from the description that there would be a much-normalized girl/girl romance and lots of schmaltz. I am a HUGE sucker for schmaltz, especially when it comes in the form of two gals falling in love.
What I realized a few pages into the book was this: even I have a threshold for schmaltz, and this book WAY exceeded it right out of the gate. I almost put it down forever only a chapter in. Now, I’m really glad I stuck it out, but it was touch-and-go for a while there.
The plot is, basically: Molly and Cassie are twins. Their two best friends are cool girl Olivia (we know she’s cool because she has blue hair and takes good photos, even though she doesn’t get any characterization beyond that) and far-away cousin Abby (who serves mainly as Molly’s faithful cheerleader via Skype and text). Molly and Cassie have two moms (one is a white Jewish woman and one is a black woman, although we never get much of either background) and a baby brother. One night at a concert Cassie meets Mina, a pansexual Korean girl followed incessantly by two “hipster boys,” one of whom is named Will and one of whom is barely mentioned so I’ve already forgotten his name. Cassie and Mina hit it off, and heart eyes ensue. Molly, who has had twenty-six unrequited crushes, feels distant from her sister as Cassie’s crush on Mina develops. However, Molly herself begins to develop feelings for two different boys in her social circle. The book keeps rolling from there.
From the get-go, I appreciated the characters’ varied backgrounds and experiences, but there’s something really hollow about a white woman writing such a variety of perspectives. We know that Mina is Korean because her parents have a lot of Tiger statues and that’s “a Korean thing” (and we get nothing beyond that). We know Nadine is black because she has dark skin and people thought she was the (white) twins’ nanny when she was out with them as babies. These details are great, and I appreciate that the story isn’t just a “diversity narrative,” but it feels like Albertalli is absolving herself of any responsibility to actually speak to anyone’s experience. It’s a hard line to toe, but this really veers into diversity theatre for me, and I don’t think anyone should be patting the author on the back for representing anybody.
That being said, it felt really good to read a story about two moms and their kids! While this also veered into leery territory sometimes–Nadine driving Molly to go see the White House after the 2015 marriage ruling left me cringing. But their parenting style felt gentle and real and good, and that’s a lot of points in my book.
Tantamount to my enjoyment of this story is Molly’s own struggle to view herself as attractive and worthy of affection. Her process mirrored my own more closely than any other fictional character’s. To me, it’s overly simplistic to define this simply as “a book about a girl with a crush on a boy.” Reviews of this book have ranged from unfettered delight to outright scorn, most of which stems from Molly’s preoccupation with the cute boys in her life. Sure, the book focuses quite a bit on Molly’s crushes, but I certainly remember being a teen girl and loving “crush talk” more than anything else.
This book made me cringe and roll my eyes at times, but it also made me grin in the break room at work and on the train home at night. It’s a warm and fuzzy read in a world where too many books about LGBT+ families focus on tragedy.