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.

You Know Me Well

Mark and Kate have been sitting next to each other for an entire year, but have never spoken. Until one fateful night, when their lives collide. Kate is running away from a chance of meeting the girl she has loved from afar, while Mark is in love with his best friend, Ryan, who may or may not love him back. They are both lost, and finding each other is the last thing on their minds.

But they don’t realise how important they will become to each other – and how, together, they will navigate the joys and heartaches of first love, one truth at a time.

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You Know Me Well, by Nina LaCour and David Levithan is a freaking joyful read. Set in San Francisco during the week of pride (and the final week of high school), the story is alternately told through the eyes of Mark and Katie.

A theme that I enjoy – and one that really isn’t addressed as often as I’d like – is that of falling in friend love. That moment when you meet someone and recognise that they are built out of the same materials as you. That’s what happens to Katie and Mark. In a moment of desperation and confusion and loneliness they come together and build life rafts out of each other’s hands.

It’s awesome.

Mark and Katie also deal with a lot of change throughout the book, in themselves, and the people around them. You Know Me Well looks at the unique and acute pain that happens when people change at different speeds. Entire relationships get turned on their heads when the issues that have made parties a little awkward for the past few months suddenly become un-ignorable. Mark watches as his mostly in the closet sometimes-boyfriend, Ryan starts dating. Katie’s friends get passive aggressive as she withdraws from them and into her relationship with Mark, not realising that the whole process is as painful for her as it is them.

They both resist the changes – Katie by running from them and Mark through flat out denial.

What they learn should be obvious: change can’t be resisted.

‘“Right,” I say. “If you find yourself in hell, keep walking. That seems to be the theme of the night.”

She says, “Could be. Or maybe, if you think you’re in hell, open your eyes. What you see may surprise you.”’

So, as much friend-love as there was in this book there was also a considerable amount of romance and heartbreak. Let’s discuss.

It should first be noted that this is a short book in which a lot happens. As such, I am willing to forgive the massive insta-love moment that occurs between Katie and Violet. But, all the same, it was a little disappointing. Violet was one of those love interests who served as a symbol for the Future, The Great Unknown that is the subject of all Katie’s fears, rather than being an actual character. I think this would have bothered me more if Katie’s story hadn’t so strongly engaged me otherwise. But her panic and confusion struck a chord with me like I haven’t experienced since I read First and Then. Katie felt real to me, even if her relationship didn’t.

As for Mark, his heart, I felt. Reading Mark and Ryan hurt. Waiting and waiting for a person to be ready, only to have them finally arrive only to speed right past you, is the ultimate heartbreak. Too often I read stories where relationships come easy, feelings are always mutual and people ultimately knowable. In reality however, this isn’t always going to be the case. Perhaps the difficulties in Mark’s relationship are the reason behind the simplicity of Katie and Violet. Pain was amply covered already.

As I mentioned, all of this takes place the week of gay pride in San Francisco. All I have to say about that is that I really want to go to pride in San Francisco because it sounds like so much fun. The book is full of characters who fade in and out – like you always meet at any celebration – and feels authentically hectic. Pride is a joyful time of everybody embracing and showing off their beautiful selves (and their beautiful loves).

‘Hiding and denying and being afraid is no way to treat love. Love demands bravery. No matter the occasion, love expects us to rise…’

I hope this one makes it onto everyone’s summer reading lists.