Mary and Emily are all in on their July Young Adult Book Club selection, The Upside of Unrequited by Beck Albertalli, which is why this review is coming a little early in the month. They just couldn't wait to talk about it. Let's get into it, shall we?
Mary: This month we're reading The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli. On its surface, this book is a typical teen romance, following twins Molly and Cassie as they navigate growing up and relationships. Molly has had crushes on 26 guys before, but never actually dated anyone, while Cassie has been more vocal about her likes and dislikes, but also remains somewhat inexperienced. One thing that sets this book apart from other YA novels is that Molly is fat--but she doesn't really let it define her. I study YA lit and focus on fat characters specifically, and I have to say, I loved this book so much. I was shocked at how Albertalli communicated Molly's discomfort in her own body while also not having it be an issue to some extent. Or having how society views fat people be an issue.
Emily: I also loved this book. I think it was great to see a fat character whose soul desire wasn't to lose weight and "be prettier," but rather she wished to live in a world where she feels more comfortable with the body she's in.
Emily: And a lot of her discomfort was around how other people acted towards her or how she imagined other people acted towards her, rather than how she felt about herself. In fact, at one point she says she doesn't hate her body, but she's afraid other people will hate her body.
Mary: She's internalized what others say about fat bodies and started to think that way, even though she rationally knows she shouldn't.
Emily: Yes, exactly.
Mary: And I mean, really, it's hard not to internalize a lot of that stuff. Fat people are one of the last groups people can make fun of without offending.
Emily: Well, sure, and I think all people, especially girls, internalize this fear and insecurity about their bodies, no matter their size. Fat is scary.
Mary: Oh definitely. All girls, and especially teen girls, have some amount of questions about their body, or think their body is weird. Which... ALL BODIES ARE WEIRD! That's just the nature of bodies.
Emily: Totally. I felt like Albertalli did a great job of capturing that. And not just around fat, but also sex. It's clear all these teenage characters have anxiety surrounding sex.
Mary: Yes, all the teens tried to talk about sex like they knew what was up, and they did not. And that's such a teen thing!
Emily: Oh yeah. You act overly comfortable with sex, so that people don't know how uncomfortable you are.
Mary: Mmmhmm. Definitely.
Emily: Should we talk about the "love triangle"?
Mary: Yes please.
Emily: I put it in quotes because it's more like a love triangle of the mind than an actual love triangle. But the love triangle has become such a trope in YA lit, and I think it's important that we look at what this book is doing with that trope.
Mary: This love triangle broke my heart.
Emily: Oh yeah definitely. Talk more about that. I sound like a therapist.
Mary: Heeheehee. Well, in a way there's a love triangle and also a love rectangle.
Emily: A love parallelogram, with a stem attached. A love big dipper.
Mary: Molly's sister wants her to date Will, a guy who is kind of a trash fire IMO.
Emily: I HATE WILL OMG. Though I kind of love that he had red hair. More gingers in books, please.
Mary: It would be easy for Molly to date Will because Cassie's girlfriend Mina is best friends with him. Cassie thinks this would be best for all of them for some reason. But Molly likes Reid, a delightfully geeky boy she works with. She sort of happens into that like gradually, which rings very true for me. BUT! Molly's friend Olivia eventually ALSO seems to be developing something with Reid.
Which is when I lost it.
Emily: AHH ME TOO! I texted you when I got to that part like, "NO OMG!" Like, I felt the pain like it was my pain, because we've all been there.
Mary: What makes this different, I think, is that Molly doesn't just automatically jump for the cute hipster boy like in many many other YA novels. She thinks about what SHE wants and who SHE thinks she would be compatible with.
Emily: Oh yeah. I'm really impressed with Molly. She seems super insecure, but honestly, she knows herself a lot more than most teens I've experienced.
Mary: I feel that attraction to Reid on a very deep level. I like a little tum. I like a SUPER GEEKY type of dude. I'm not concerned with conventional attractiveness.
Emily: A little tum is so cute. Not that my fiancé Ben has any tum. And that's okay too.
Mary: I feel like the girl in Pulp Fiction who likes a little pot belly.
Emily: Hahahah "a pot."
Emily: Like, I just like a normal looking body.
Mary: People who aren't movie stars have all sorts of bodies and that's OK. That's a good thing.
Emily: Yes. Reid was swoony, tbh. Season passes to the Ren Faire? Sign me up.
Mary: Me too! I mean, I am a geeky lady and I need someone who can keep up with that. Someone who can keep up with my tabletop RPG habit.
Emily: GUYS. HIS CELEBRITY CRUSH IS QUEEN ELIZABETH.
Mary: Which, like, A+ celebrity crush.
Emily: Clearly he respects a powerful woman. Which obviously #1 on my "Oh-No-No's" list is: can't deal with me being a boss bitch.
Mary: Oh for sure. Everyone needs their own independence and should support each other in that.
Emily: So Reid passes.
Mary: But when it seems like Reid is interested in Olivia, my heart broke, because I could see it going the way SO MANY stories go. Stories in my real life too.
Emily: Yes, because Molly thinks clearly he'll pick the skinny girl.
Mary: Which, I thought--Could she be that wrong? This is the way things usually go.
Emily: But then we realize Reid was kinda thinking the same thing about Molly. That clearly she'd pick the cute ginger hipster boy.
Mary: Which is beautiful!
Emily: OMG SUCH CUTE LIL MUFFINS!!! I normally don't like to read a ton of squishy teen romance, but I was totally digging on this. Because it felt earned.
Mary: One thing I really appreciate about this novel is that it acknowledges that there are many layers to attraction. Yes, bodies are part of that, but beauty is subjective to such a large extent! What I find attractive might not be your cup of tea. Also, attraction has SO MUCH to do with personality and interests. People are more than just their bodies and you can be totally smitten with someone who isn't "conventionally attractive" or attractive by society's standards. AND THAT IS GOOD!
Emily: That's really the lesson Molly learns throughout the course of the novel. Because at first, she resists liking Reid because she feels like he's not the type of person she SHOULD like. Even though he's charming and sweet and she loves being around him. So she kind of realizes at the same time that A) she can love whoever she wants, and it's not embarrassing. It's wonderful. and B) she can be loved just the way she is, because not everyone has to be attracted to the same type of person.
Mary: That is a lesson we all need--even adults!
Emily: Yeah, cause, like, I'm embarrassed of Ben every day.
Mary: Oh Ben!
Emily: I'm just kidding. Ben is lovely!
Mary: I know--to get personal for a minute--that I am fine just the way I am. I think I'm cute, I like things about myself. But American culture tells me I shouldn't like myself. I should be ashamed. I'm kind of shy relationship wise anyway, so when I like someone I'm much less apt to just come out and be confident and say it, because I've been taught that no one SHOULD be attracted to me. I've been taught rejection is the norm for me. Which is just really messed up.
Emily: I feel like I'm the opposite, Mary! I'm super insecure about the way I look but I'm totally cool with other people liking me. I'm like, well, if that's what you're into, I guess that's fine.
Mary: Everyone has weird feelings about their bodies and I think what those feelings are is proportional to upbringing, how much media you take in, etc. Like, one of my family members used to call me fat when we ate dinner. Almost every day. And she'd talk about my mom being fat. It took a long time to get over that, and maybe I'm still not? Words run deep.
Emily: Growing up, my grandma was fond of telling me, "If you can pinch an inch, you need to do some work on yourself." So there's that.
Mary: Grandma no! That's not how that works!
Emily: Well, she just turned 90, so I don't think she's going to change now.
Mary: Nah, probably not.
Emily: Speaking of grandmas, let's talk about the grandma in the book maybe.
Mary: Yes! The horrible grandma!
Emily: Yeah so the grandma in the book seems like the type of person who would tell her grandchildren if they could pinch an inch, they need to work on themselves.
Mary: It's nice to have her in the novel, in a way, because Molly's parents are so perfect.
Emily: She definitely seems to take joy in calling Molly fat.
Mary: Extreme joy.
Emily: But you're right. We need to see criticism to see where Molly's insecurity is coming from. So the big revelation with Molly's grandmother at the end of the book is that she used to be fat too. Like, for a second, like, after she had a baby. Which... ISN'T THAT NORMAL?
Mary: YES! Everyone gains weight when they have a baby! hello!
Emily: So... I found that a little dissatisfying as a reasoning behind the grandma being so hard on Molly for being fat.
Mary: But it really highlights HOW TERRIFIED people are of gaining weight. Women go nuts over baby weight. This book is running together with another, less impressive book I read recently called 45 Pounds (More or Less) by K.A. Barson, which also features a crappy grandma and a wedding.
Emily: Oh yeah! Do you want to talk about that book for a bit?
Mary: Sure. It's really a hot mess of a book. It follows a girl who HATES HERSELF and her body and everyone in her life is terrible to her. She spends the majority of the novel having a crush on a guy who is CLEARLY cool with her body and crushing on her hard, but she's like NO I MUSN'T BC I'M FAT! Is this a thing that happens? Yes. BUT GEEZ! The novel was painful to read because the mom continuously tried to get her to diet and do weight watchers, which, I've been there. And there wasn't really a good message or satisfying ending. She lost some weight so she felt better about herself. The end.
Emily: That's terrible! The Upside of Unrequited seems almost like a direct response to 45 Pounds.
Mary: It does! They fit together well!
Emily: Because in the end, Molly doesn't lose weight. She puts on a fabulous dress that shows off her curves, and everyone tells her how beautiful she looks.
Mary: And she FEELS GOOD ABOUT HERSELF! Can I say my favorite silly part of the book?
Mary: When Reid got a boner when they were making out.
Mary: No one really talks about that frankly in YA books, and it was weirdly tender.
Emily: Yeah, that must suck for guys.
Mary: Let's reclaim the boner, you know. It's a thing that happens.
Emily: Because sometimes you just want to make out, and your dick's like, "Nah, dude."
Emily: And you're like "But we just got together. It's not time yet." And your dick's like, "What? I don't hear you." Especially as a teenager.
Mary: Didn't hear you over all this RUSHING BLOOD! When I was a teen I had a guy friend who pretty much had a boner every time we watched a movie.
Emily: Honestly, most of the time I'm pretty glad I'm not a dude. Seems pretty lame.
Mary: Visible arousal---SEEMS LAME!
Emily: Yeah. Sucks to suck.
Mary: But it was nice in a way because it was affirming for Molly. Like hey, he is actually physically attracted to me.
Emily: And they were both so sweet about it.
Mary: It was very tender and nice.
Emily: And then we gotta talk about how her mom the next morning was like, "I know you had Reid in your room, so let's get you on the pill ASAP before I become a granny."
Mary: YES! Cool moms.
Emily: Those moms knew what was up. Also... maybe this was just me. I'm getting to the point in my life where I identify more with the parents in these teen books than with the teenagers. Like I think I would be friends with these women.
Mary: Oh definitely. They seemed very cool.
Emily: And their issues seem like more of the types of things my peers are dealing with. Gay marriage, estranged family members, etc.
Mary: Yes, definitely! I wanted to know more about the estranged sister.
Emily: Yeah, so Nadine and Patty are a lesbian couple. Patty used a sperm donor to have Cassie and Molly, who are twins. And then Nadine used the same donor to have Xavier. And now that gay marriage is finally legal, they are having a chill wedding in their backyard. And Nadine's sister Karen is not cool with this, and we think she's not going to come. And then she's there at the end, but she doesn't announce herself, so we don't even know if Nadine knows her sister is there.
Mary: I feel like there's so much more backstory there we don't know.
Emily: Yes, let's have an adult novel about Nadine and Patty next. Like we find out at the end of the novel that Nadine had a really hard time getting pregnant. Which is why there's such a huge age difference between Cassie/Molly and Xavier. P.S. if my kid was name Xavier, I would call him Professor X. Just sayin. And make him bald forever.
Mary: Yesss. I just love this novel so much.
Emily: Me too. I feel like maybe we're doing a crappy job explaining it because we're gushing so much, so I want to address some of the criticisms this novel is getting on Goodreads to kinda balance this out. I always love to read negative reviews after I finish a book, whether I liked the book or not
They just give me more to think about than positive reviews. So one of the main critiques I'm seeing about the book is the diversity, because it seems to a lot of people that the diversity is just to check off boxes rather than actually being fully addressed as part of the plot. Another issue a lot of people seem to have with the book is its plot, or lack thereof. As for the way it addresses the "fatness" of Molly, some reviewers are concerned that Molly seems to need a boyfriend at the end of the novel in order to feel self worth. A lot of people also said that Molly came off as whiny and self-centered. Like when she couldn't be happy for her moms getting married because she was too sad about being alone.
Mary: Whoooo i have thoughts on all these.
Emily: Me too. So let's talk about diversity. This book ticks a lot of boxes. We have interracial relationships, lesbian relationships (multiple), differently shaped bodies, mental illness. How do you think Albertalli did at handling all of these things?
Mary: I don't think she treated these categories as A THING in the plot because, to some extent, she was trying to normalize it. Yes, Cassie and Molly have two moms, but that isn't really a big deal to them, and Albertalli seems to say it shouldn't be a big deal to the reader either. The mental illness thing seemed kind of glossed over though.
Emily: Yeah, so Molly is on Zoloft. For anxiety? I think?
Mary: Yes, she used to have panic attacks.
Emily: Which, same.
Mary: Yes, also same.
Emily: Hahahaha. So maybe that's why we're so sensitive to this all the time.
Mary: Oh definitely. It is.
Emily: But, yeah, she seemed to make a big deal out of the fact that she was on Zoloft.
Mary: She mentioned it a lot when the teens were all drinking.
Emily: Which kind of made me feel like... fuck, am I crazy because I'm on Zoloft?
Mary: Which yes, you technically aren't supposed to drink on Zoloft, but it doesn't like....do much.
Emily: Basically, if you drink while you're on Zoloft, it can make you sleepy and sad. But honestly, drinking just makes me sleepy and sad.
Mary: That is one of its effects yes.
Emily: But you know, I'm not a doctor so please don't read this blog and think, cool, I'm gonna take 200mg of Zoloft and get wasted all day every day.
Mary: Oh no, we're not doctors! YET.
Emily: Yeah but... doctors of English. So we will be fake doctors. Don't let us give you any advice about medicine or life.
Mary: I think getting your PhD in English qualifies you to know about Zoloft though.
Emily: Yeah because we're all on it. Like all of us. If an English PhD student tells you they're not on Zoloft, they're probably lying.
Mary: I'm thinking about how Molly seems to need a boyfriend now.
Emily: Okay yes. That does seem like a valid point.
Mary: WHY does she need a boyfriend though? Is it to feel good about herself? Is it to feel validated?
Emily: I think she just wants to experience love. I don't think it's about being validated. But she does sort of feel like she's undeserving of love because of the way she looks.
Mary: Right--she sees all her friends experiencing it, and frankly, making fun of her for not experiencing it.
Emily: But how do you realize you're deserving of love until you experience love?
Emily: So... for that particular insecurity, it seems necessary for her to let go and allow someone to love her, to "live dangerously" as she puts it.
Mary: You can either have someone date you or spend YEARS STUDYING SELF IMAGE AND SOCIETAL INFLUENCE, not that I have done that or anything.
Emily: Yeah, but that wouldn't be as interesting to read about. Sorry Mary.
Mary: Nope, it wouldn't be, and there are books about activism for that. Kate Harding's Lessons from the Fatosphere, for example.
Emily: Okay, what else did the haters say? Let's talk about the plot.
Mary: Yes. I thought there was a plot.
Emily: Me too. Okay, next.
Mary: It might not have been the plot people wanted but it was there. Have they ever read YA novels based in reality? I mean, romance is a huge part of the plot always.
Emily: There's been romance at the center of EVERY BOOK we picked for this summer. So...
Mary: Yes, hahaha. Welcome to YA Lit, haters.
Emily: Teens are really horny and want bfs and gfs ok. Bye, haters. Bye.
Mary: And sometimes they get boners, and it is normal.
Emily: Yes. And they talk to their boners. And the boners don't listen. Okay lastly, how do we feel about this hatin' on Molly as a character. Is she whiny?
Mary: I don't see it. What teen isn't whiny? I was whiny. I mean, I might be whiny now. IDK.
Emily: I mean, I think she's kind of whiny, yes, but that's normal teen behavior. I get annoyed when I read teen books where teenagers are super chill and act like adults. LOOKING AT YOU, FUCKING JOHN GREEN!
Mary: UGH JOHN GREEN. I could do a whole post about how I dislike his books. I've read every john green book except one and I just can't with him.
Emily: Yes please do that post. Please.
Emily: Seeing a teen character who does stupid shit and thinks stupid things is like, yes, this is reality. This feels more like what being a teen felt like for me.
Mary: Nothing is chill about being a teenager.
Emily: OKAY so our response to the haters: Teenagers are dumb and whiny. If that bothers you, go back to reading John Green or, like, read an adult book.
Mary: We hate the haters.
Emily: If it's not clear, I rated this five stars on Goodreads. The highest honor.
Mary: Me too!
Mary: And I wish I could've rated it higher.
Emily: TEN STARS. OUT OF FIVE.
Mary: Everyone should go out and read it and be surprised by how lovely it is.
Emily: Definitely. I highly recommend this. I've been really excited about reading it, and I wasn't disappointed.
Mary: I also want to read Albertalli's other book now.
Emily: Oh yeah so Simon vs. the Homo-Sapiens Agenda is apparently set in the same "universe" as this book because some major characters are minor characters in this book. But neither of us really know for sure because neither of us have read it yet.
Mary: I mean, Simon is in The Upside of Unrequited for a moment. Just a moment.
Emily: And from his brief appearance in The Upside of Unrequited, we know Simon loves Harry Potter, so I already like him. So we'll get on that and report back, or if you have read it, feel free to comment below (no spoilers, even though we spoil the heck out of everything).
So that's it for this month's Summer YA Book Club! Come back at the end of August for our final selection of the summer, which is The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon. Thanks for tuning in!!
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The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.