“There’s this feeling I get when I watch other people kiss. I become a different form of matter. Like they’re water, and I’m an ice cube. Like I’m the most alone person in the entire world.”
Molly Peskin-Suso is the queen of unrequited love. At seventeen, she has had twenty-six crushes, but zero boyfriends. She hasn’t even been kissed. By contrast, Molly’s twin sister Cassie has an easy confidence when it comes to hooking up with girls, and she always tells Molly everything. But then Mina arrives on the scene, and for the first time ever, Cassie is totally crushed out, and a little bit secretive, leaving Molly out in the cold. But Mina has a cute best friend named Will, and Molly might not feel so left out if he was her boyfriend. So why can’t Molly stop thinking about her nerdy co-worker, Reid?
One of the chief themes Becky Albertalli touches on in The Upside of Unrequited is the necessity of vulnerability in order to get what you want. Molly has had twenty-six crushes, but she has never asked anyone out, or told any of her crushes that she liked them. Molly is basically allergic to being deliberately vulnerable, since going through life as a fat girl is already a highly visible form of vulnerability to bullying from her classmates and pointed comments from her grandmother. Add in social anxiety, and the idea of ever getting into a relationship seems like an insurmountable obstacle. But Molly slowly comes to realize that she might have to be less careful in order to get what she wants, even if the idea is terrifying. Even if she isn’t sure who she should be less careful about.
Molly’s romantic conflict is between Mina’s cute hipster best friend, Will, and her new co-worker Reid, a nerdy Jewish boy. Will seems like the easy and obvious answer. He is best friends with Cassie’s girlfriend, which would make Molly feel like less of third wheel when she hangs out with Cassie and Mina. And Cassie seems pretty determined to get the two of them together. Her twin sister seems to be drifting away, and Molly will do anything to keep her close. But the more time she spends with Reid at the store, working, and talking, and laughing, the more she can’t stop thinking about him instead, even if he takes her further away from Cassie. It is a story about a struggle to reconcile two seemingly conflicting impulses.
Although Molly is caught between two boys, the central relationship in The Upside of Unrequited is really the sibling relationship between Molly and Cassie. Cassie has dated before, but she has never had a serious girlfriend before Mina, and this presages some changes in her relationship with Molly. Cassie has always been Molly’s person, but suddenly she is faced with the fact that siblings are rarely one another’s main person in adulthood. Her moms have one another, and Nadine barely talks to her sister Karen, even though they were very close growing up. Molly recognizes change as “the most basic of all tragedies,” an inevitability that she is determined to avert, even when struggling against change only seems to make matters worse.
Becky Albertalli’s sophomore novel has a loose connection to her first book, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Molly’s cousin Abby recently moved to Georgia, where she met a new guy named Nick, and became friends with Simon. Although there are a couple fannish nods to Simon, and some interactions with Abby, The Upside of Unrequited really stands on its own. It is a sweet story of love and family, featuring a diverse cast of characters all with their own unique charms and struggles. Relationships of all kinds are the driving force of this coming-of-age story.
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