The Upside of Unrequited

Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love. No matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly is always careful. Better to be careful than hurt.

But when Cassie gets a new girlfriend who comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick, everything changes. Will is funny, flirtatious and basically the perfect first boyfriend.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s co-worker, Reid, the awkward Tolkien superfan she could never fall for… right?  

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The Upside of Unrequited is an adorable, bitter-sweet story of first love, change and marriage equality. Fans of Simon VS The Homo Sapiens Agenda won’t be disappointed by Becky Albertalli’s follow up. Like its predecessor, it aims straight for the heart.

And oh my god does it meet its target. It took me right back to being seventeen, and the last boyfriendless nerd girl standing. I wanted to call up Albertalli and ask why she couldn’t have written this seven years ago (yes, I am old) because seventeen-year-old me would really have appreciated it.

The Upside of Unrequited is the quintessential contemporary young adult novel. Molly is obsessed with the worlds of love and sex she has not yet experienced for herself, but through the constant presence of both in movies, books and her home – her moms are super in love and get engaged toward the beginning of the story – she feels like she knows it.

But actually putting it into practise? Molly can’t think of anything more terrifying. It doesn’t help that in all those movies the girls are skinny, which Molly certainly isn’t.

Can we just take a moment and appreciate a fat bodied girl in a YA novel, please? I can’t be the only one fed up of YA girls who mysteriously almost all describe themselves as ‘too skinny’ (I know some people feel this way, and I’m not shaming them for it, just acknowledging that those people perhaps aren’t a majority, as many books would have us believe…). Molly’s insecurities about her body are present throughout the story in a way that felt very authentic. She’s always pulling on a cardigan to hide the parts of herself she feels self-conscious about. In one of the most anger-inducing scenes in the novel, a boy at a party tells Molly that she’s “pretty for a fat girl”. Conversely, in one of the best scenes, after pulling on her wedding outfit she realises she’s hot AF in a dress that makes her look “fat on purpose”, which in a world where we’re forever being told to buy clothes that are ‘slimming’, felt very empowering.

This scene where Molly feels fat and beautiful is emblematic of much of the writing in the novel. It’s a cute contemporary giving some serious side eye to outdated ideas of what love is, what family is and what people should look like. It has a diverse cast of characters – Molly has two moms in a mixed race relationship and was born via a sperm donor – and felt, like Radio Silence, so refreshing to read.

The Upside of Unrequited, though undeniably sweet and charming, also packs an emotional punch. It’s about change, growing up, and, inevitably, away from the people you’ve been closest to all your life. Molly spends much of the book trying to resolve the idea that the relationship she has always had with her sister will change as they head into hopefully parallel, but also different futures. She tries to cling onto the past in a way that only pushes the people she wants closest, namely her twin sister, Cassie, away. Albertalli beautifully illustrates the unique pain we experience when our priorities change at different rates than those closest to us.

In this sense, though it’s somewhat on the younger end of the YA spectrum, The Upside of Unrequited totally appealed to me as an older reader. The sweeping changes that start at the end of your teens go on (at least, in my experience) to become your new normal as you progress into your twenties. As such, there was something in the irrepressible optimism that is the heart of this novel that I found deeply comforting.

I highly recommend it.

To the Bone: Authentic or Irresponsible?

TRIGGER WARNING: I will be discussing eating disorders throughout this post.

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Photo: Netflix

Unless you have been living under a social media rock, you’ll be aware that Netflix released To the Bone, its controversial new movie about eating disorders – the first feature-length film on the subject – last week. To the Bone has been at the centre of an online shit-storm ever since its release, and to Google it is to see a stream of think pieces denouncing it as irresponsible and unrealistic side by side with those calling it authentic and moving.

So, which is it?

After watching it and spending much of the past week thinking about it and discussing it endlessly with my friends/anyone who will listen really, I remain unsure. Prior to watching, all I had read were negative reviews, so I went in with the expectation that I would finish it feeling disgusted and low-key bad about myself. Instead, I found I did not hate it.

And so I wondered, am I wrong? So I did what I always do when I find myself mired in problematic subject matter. I read a bunch and asked everyone who would have the conversation with me: What do you think?

The answer? It’s complicated.

The biggest problem that comes up, particularly with the representation of eating disorders on television but also mental health problems more generally, is the issue of glamorisation. It’s uncomfortable but true that as a culture we imagine certain kinds of self-destruction as romantic: drug addicts make the best music, OCD is a great personality trait in a detective and suicide is the hallmark of a great female writer. Equally, a beautiful girl starving herself to death because she just can’t see what everyone else does has its own tragic appeal. And, in as much as Lily Collins’ portrayal of Ellen in To the Bone fits that ideal, with her smart humour and artistic talent, the film is not innocent of this. But as much as Ellen’s character plays to that pre-existing ideal, Marti Noxon, the writer and director has made efforts to undermine it by displaying some of the decidedly un-glamorous side effects of starving yourself to death: the excess hair her painfully thin body grows as it struggles to keep itself warm, the bag of vomit Ellen’s roommate in her treatment facility keeps hidden under her bed and the abject horror of her loved ones when they see her emaciated body, to name a few. Whether or not those efforts are enough is a difficult question to answer.

A lot of negative reviews have picked up the dominance of thinness in the story as a reason why To the Bone is so potentially damaging. Though it’s true that thinness is central, the film also addresses the fact that eating disorders aren’t just about controlling weight, but controlling feelings. For many people, their disorder is way of channelling feelings that they can’t cope with – which is why Luke (yep. There’s a boy in this movie dealing with Anorexia – another aspect of the film I was a fan of) points out that childhood sexual abuse is such ‘a big thing among rexies.’ While I think the film could have got into this more, it did shed some light of the potential reasons behind Ellen’s disorder (her family are a total disaster, her mother also struggles with her mental health, etc). It also demonstrated this through the means of romance – which a lot of people took issue with, but was one of the parts of the film that actually worked best for me. To get in a romantic relationship is to feel all the feelings – they are unavoidable. To an expert avoider like Ellen, this was completely terrifying and her acknowledgement of that terror was a big moment for her and a step toward recovery. She needed to feel all the feelings.

However, it’s also true that the extreme bodies shown in To the Bone are not representative of what many people struggling with eating disorders actually look like, though the effects on their health are equally as devastating. The emaciated bodies that are the predominant idea we have of what an eating disorder looks like discourages many who have such a disorder from seeking help because they don’t believe they are sick enough. In this sense, the film absolutely perpetuates the single story of eating disorders. Christina Grasso wrote a fantastic piece about this over at Style Caster that I highly recommend.

So I’ve ended up right back where I started: on the fence. There were moments in this movie that felt achingly authentic, right next to others that, on reflection, I feel uncomfortable with. On the one hand, I take the information that this is a story that Marti Noxon wanted to tell about herself as someone who once struggled with an eating disorder to mean the film has nothing but good intentions. On the other, the cynical part of my brain worries that perhaps that fact is held up as a means to preclude criticism.

I would like to think that the conversation will grow and that To the Bone will be a story of what it’s like to have an eating disorder, rather than what so often happens, and it becomes the story. Either way, I feel it’s one with value, as a discussion starter and simply, a film.

Have you seen To the Bone? What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s great, terrible, or are you on the fence?

 

 

 

 

 

Marlena

The story of two girls and the wild year that will cost one her life and define the other’s for decades.

Everything about fifteen-year-old Cat’s new town in rural Michigan is lonely and off-kilter until she meets her neighbour, the magic, beautiful, pill-popping Marlena. Cat is quickly drawn into Marlena’s orbit, and as she catalogues a litany of firsts – first drink, first cigarette, first kiss, first pill – Marlena’s habits harden and calcify. Within a year, Marlena is dead, drowned in six inches of icy water in the woods nearby. Now, decades later, when a ghost from that pivotal year surfaces unexpectedly, Cat must try again to move on, even as the memory of Marlena calls her back.

Told in a haunting dialogue between the past and the present, Marlena is an unforgettable story of the friendships that shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to bring oneself back from the brink.

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Marlena by Julie Buntin is a poetically written coming of age set against a backdrop of rural poverty, drug abuse and the magical powers of female friendship.

Oof. This is not an easy read. To read Marlena is to live a few days with the particular sadness of getting to know a character with the knowledge that at some point in the book, they are going to die. Our willingness to inflict emotional trauma on ourselves is one of the odd peculiarities that comes with being a total story fangirl.

It’s rare that I talk about world building outside of the context of fantasy, but in Marlena, Julie Buntin has created one that is as immersive as it is oppressive. The bleakness of the landscape, occupied by, as so many spaces are, only the very rich and the very poor, seems to soak up the potential of its inhabitants. Though Marlena is undoubtedly a book of feelings – of love, rejection, shame and grief – it is also one of the all-encompassing boredom that comes with being a teenager in a shitty town in the middle of nowhere.

Unlike a lot of the stories I read written from the perspectives of teenagers, our protagonist, Cat, is telling the story as an adult woman looking back on the year that formed so much of who she became as an adult. This creates an awareness of adolescence that is necessarily absent from YA (because when you’re a teen literally the last thing you’re interested in is analysis of being a teen from people who no longer are one. Then you turn 22 and start realising you need to figure out your shit and then it’s all you want to read. Trust me on that.). Marlena is an exploration of adolescence from adulthood in which Buntin reflects with painful emotional honesty on sex, obsessive friendship, naivety and body image to the point you can’t help but feel, as Stephanie Danler writes, “sick to my stomach, with equal parts fear and nostalgia – stunned that any of us made it out of our adolescence alive.”

Cat and Marlena’s friendship makes for a compelling and tragic read. They in fall in love through each fulfilling for the other a need they had never vocalised: for Cat, the need to be connected to somebody, to feel seen in order to feel alive (who hasn’t been there?) and for Marlena, to be loved innocently for the first and probably only time in her short, difficult life. Buntin skilfully maintains an insurmountable distance between the two girls using the comparative innocence that likely drew Marlena to Cat in the first place. The evil lurking in Marlena’s life is the meth addiction that has stolen so many people from her community, including her abusive father, whose addition controls his life. It also has her boyfriend, Ryder, who sells the drug, in its grip. This is a force that dominates Marlena’s life, and always has. It’ll lead to what seems at the end her inevitable death. Yet, when Cat first sees the improvised meth lab lurking in Ryder’s home, she has no idea what she’s looking at, she doesn’t see the fire that’s already burnt Marlena’s house to the ground.

Marlena is a beautiful and tragic book about sisterhood and grief. It is a story in equal parts sickening and compelling with a rawness concerning the darker aspects of girlhood that left me in pieces. Buntin has presented us with a difficult but thrilling debut that has left me excited – when I recover, anyway – for whatever she comes up with next.

Mood Reads

When the idea of hanging out with your friends makes you want to puke from anxiety…

Fan Girl – Rainbow Rowell

When is feels like EVERYBODY has somebody but you and you’re going to die alone…

The Upside of Unrequited – Becky Albertalli

When you want to set fire to things…

Play it as it Lays – Joan Didion

When you want to start a political movement…

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

When you want to celebrate adult life, in all its weirdnesses…

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

When you want some serious sexy times…

The Hating Game – Sally Thorne

When you’ve had one of those nights with friends where you feel like you’ve found your place in the universe….

The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater

When you need to feel like you exist…

Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed

When you need to disappear…

The Name of the Star – Maureen Johnson

When you want to have learned EVERYTHING…

My Life on the Road – Gloria Steinem

When you need to hear that it’s okay to be insecure…

The Rest of Us Just Live Here – Patrick Ness

When you need reminding that the world can be beautiful….

No Matter the Wreckage – Sarah Kay

Radio Silence

TRIGGER WARNING: There is an emotionally abusive parent in this book.

What if everything you set yourself up to be was wrong?

Frances is a study machine with one goal. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside. Then Frances meets Aled, and for the first time she’s unafraid to be herself.

So when the fragile trust between them is broken, Frances is caught between who she was and who she longs to be. Now Frances knows that she has to confront her past. To confess why Carys disappeared.

Frances is going to need every bit of courage she has.

Engaging with themes of identity, diversity and the freedom to choose, Radio Silence is a tour de force by the most exciting writer of her generation.

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Radio Silence by Alice Oseman is a complicated world of inclusivity, art, heartbreak and abuse wrapped up in one of the most compelling coming-of-age stories I have read in a long time.

Can I be super honest about something? When I opened the book and read that Oseman is only 21-years-old, I wanted to hate Radio Silence. The fact of her set every alarm bell in my head screaming: FAILURE. But then I remembered that thing I read somewhere that said everybody is on their own timeline, and tried very hard to put it to the back of my mind. Like I have to do every time I read something written by Tavi Gevinson. Sometimes you have to love the thing more than the thing makes you feel bad about yourself, because if I had decided not to read this book, I would have missed out.

Radio Silence is a character driven contemporary that rejects the heteronormativity and romance that dominates the genre. It presents us with a familiar situation: outcast girl meets outcast boy, sets the scene for what we expect to be yet another epic teen romance and then denies us. Frances explains it best: “You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl. I just wanted to say – We don’t. That’s all.”

Oseman does this throughout the novel: she acknowledges our assumptions – of straightness and whiteness, etc – gives them some serious side eye, and then blasts past them in order to let her characters be their fully expressed selves.

This rejection of ‘traditional’ narrative is also apparent in the writing itself. Radio Silence is a book concerned with options and with identity and even the structure of the book demonstrates this. Each part of the novel is identified with a school term and that term is then separated into parts a, b, and c. It reminded me of an exam, where you get to choose whether to answer question a, b or c and was reflective of the way in which Frances, Aled and their friends were choosing which life to lead: one where they lived up to the expectations of their parents/themselves, one where they lived in the way they wanted to while appearing to live up to expectations of their parents/themselves, or one where they threw it all out the window and instead decided to live a life they really truly wanted.

Radio Silence also engages with online culture in a very authentic and satisfying way. The book is set around a Welcome To Nightvale-style podcast that Aled and Frances work on together, and through that story, Oseman analyses the positives and negatives of online life, particularly for those who have gained a following. On the one hand, we see a space where people get to express themselves and their identities in a way they might not be comfortable to do at school – Universe City, Aled Last’s podcast has a gender neutral narrator – but on the other, a world in which people receive death threats by strangers who have decided their identity is offensive. Oseman presents a volatile space and asks us to see the positive in it. After receiving a death threat, Aled tells his boyfriend that he’s demi-sexual, an identity he learned of online and that opened up an understanding of himself he had never had before. Negative offset by positive.

It’s an empowering read that resists tropes at every step from its dissection of the joys and heartbreak of platonic love to its unique take on intelligence in all its forms. You will finish Radio Silence with a little bit more hope than when you started.

5 Reasons to Watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

I adore this show, but for whatever reason, I have a really hard time selling Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to people. The premise of the show is pretty stupid: hotshot New York Lawyer Rebecca Bunch moves to the shitty California town of West Covina to pursue the boy who broke her heart at summer camp when she was seventeen. And it’s a musical.

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But it’s also a frank look at mental illness, feminism and romcom culture; it deconstructs the idea that a relationship is the solution to all problems. And it’s a musical.

It’s a fantastic show. Let’s talk about some of the reasons why.

  1. The songs

So far so obvious, but the songs in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are hilarious and catchy while also functioning as vehicles through which to communicate greater emotional truths. So in the second episode when Rebecca meets Josh (the guy she moved to West Covina for’s) girlfriend, Valencia, her song about her own superiority over Rebecca (featuring lines such as ‘I’m not afraid to get tattoos/and they are all in Sanskrit/butt stuff doesn’t hurt at all/most times I prefer it) ends with the line ‘my father didn’t leave me.’

It’s a funny song about how we compare ourselves to other women that reveals an important truth about Rebecca. Her dad abandoned her.

And it was the song that made me fall in love with the show.

  1. Bisexuality!

This is a minor spoiler (sorry not sorry), but one of the storylines half way through the first season sees Rebecca’s boss Darryl come out as bisexual. As we all know, representation of bisexual people is pretty much non-existent on most shows, and on the rare occasions we do see it portrayal is overwhelmingly negative. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend we see a divorced man with a daughter heading into middle age realising that he’s attracted to men as well as women, going through the process of coming out and then having a happy, healthy relationship with a very cute guy. For a group so often marginalised even within the LGBTQ+ community, this storyline felt important.

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  1. Complex (like really really complex) women

There is a trope on a lot of shows of the perfect girl getting with the complicated, emotionally unavailable guy (Gossip Girl, New Girl, Veronica Mars, every teen movie from the 80s) that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend really turns on its head. Rebecca is the kind of girl to cause her therapist despair. She’s a woman trying to figure out how to make herself okay without really knowing how to go about doing that. And it doesn’t really matter whether she’s likeable or not during the process.

As someone who is sick of watching shows about women trying to ‘fix’ difficult men, I found this beyond refreshing.

  1. Diverse cast

Josh Chan, the romantic interest and male lead of the show is a first generation Filipino American man. Unless they’re John Cho, Asian men are generally typecast into very limited stereotypes and those generally don’t feature much in the way of romance or sex. Josh Chan turns that on its head by being basically the bro-iest bro in bro-town. He is a complex romantic interest with storylines (and issues! So many issues.) all of his own. In a world where seeing Aziz Ansari perform a sex scene is considered ground-breaking, characters like Josh Chan are so, so needed.

  1. Feminism

How can a show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend be feminist? I hear you ask. In all sorts of ways, it turns out. Through the mediums of song and melodrama the show tackles everything from eating disorders to abortion from a very unique perspective. It is also puts a lot of energy into satirising ‘feminism’ as empowertising, with songs like Put Yourself First sung during a typical post-boy problem makeover. Sample lines include:

‘Put yourself first girl worry ‘bout yourself/make yourself sexy just for yourself/so when dudes we see you put yourself first/they’ll be like damn you’re hot/Wanna make out?’

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It’s a great and terribly underappreciated show. The first two seasons are on Netflix and they are working on a third as I type, so you’ve got plenty of time to catch up with the trials (because she’s a lawyer! It’s funny!) and tribulations of Rebecca Bunch before the third season begins.

Too Much and Not the Mood

On April 11, 1931, Virginia Woolf ended her entry in A Writer’s Diary with the words “too much and not the mood.” She was describing how tired she was of correcting her own writing, of the “cramming in and the cutting out” to please readers, wondering if she had anything at all that was truly worth saying.

The character of that sentiment, the attitude of it, inspired Durga Chew-Bose to collect her own unconventional work. The result is a lyrical and piercingly insightful cluster of essays-meet-prose poetry about identity and culture.

Informed by Maggie Nelsons Bluets, Lydia Davis’s stories, and Vivian Gornick’s exploration of interior life, Chew-Bose mines the inner restlessness that keeps her always on the brink of creative expression. Part memoir, part cultural criticism, Too Much and Not the Mood is a lush, surprising, and affecting examination of what it means to be a first-generation, creative young woman working today.

Book + coffee + sunshine = happy place #bookstagram #belletristbabe #summer #sundayfunday

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I read a lot of essay collections written by women. I treat them like instruction manuals for life; I return to them over and over and over again when I need to scratch a particular emotional itch.

You probably know the one I mean.

But in all the collections that line my bookshelves there is nobody quite like Durga Chew-Bose. It makes sense to me that she named her collection after a Virginia Woolf quote because Too Much and Not the Mood flows, bounces and draws up short in a stream of consciousness style that is distinctly Woolfian.

I was thrown off balance as soon as I started reading, finding the first essay, ‘Heart Museum’ (probably the most experimental of the collection) was 93 pages long. It’s Chew-Bose at her most whimsical. You don’t so much open the door into her world as tumble, Alice in Wonderland-style endlessly down into her interior life, wondering, all the while, how she managed to paint the inside of her brain in a way that makes introversion feel big instead of claustrophobic. The essay meanders through anxiety, writing, your woman friends who make you feel more connected than anybody else, so called ‘nook’ people and the purpose and beauty that can be found in, as she calls it, intentionally digressing.

In Too Much and Not the Mood, Chew-Bose is preoccupied by her childhood and her relationship with her parents in particular. In another standout essay, ‘D as In’, she writes about her experience of being a first-generation kid, and how being a woman of colour comes with ‘an assumption that I owe strangers an answer when they inquire’ but where are you from from? It is a beautiful piece about finding your identity while living in a society that so often imposes a limited one on people from minorities.

My copy of the book is filled with dog-eared pages. Durga Chew-Bose’s writing is like unwrapping a gift or sinking into a hot bath after a long day. There is something luxurious about existing in the interior space that she creates. A great example of this is the piece ‘On Living Alone’, which she writes of as an exercise in getting to know the person she’s spent her whole life avoiding: herself. She writes: ‘Living alone, I soon caught on, is a form of self-portraiture, or retracing the same lines over and over – of becoming.’

There were so many moments while reading that I had to put the book down and quietly wonder at her writing. There were other times I had to wave the book in the air and read out passages to the nearest friend or family member I could grab hold of. I took photos of quotes and sent them to my friends, to confused responses mostly. Chew-Bose has such a poetic way of cutting to the heart of a feeling in a way that made me catch my breath.

In the final essay of the collection ‘My Least and Most Aware’, she recounts meeting up with an ex, and the way that all of the old resentments she thought she’d moved past came rushing back to the surface. She writes:

 ‘We laboured, he and I, over niceties. Listening to him felt like work. It was as though we were both trying to retrieve a mutual tenderness that had fallen from our hands and rolled into a storm drain.’

I already know this is one I’ll be reading over and over.