Here’s a confession: I spent the latter part of last year barely reading at all. I finished my MA in September, and between then and February this year, I read eight books. For me, that’s a ridiculously small amount. I don’t know why exactly it was, but I do know when I got my love of reading back: when I started Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. It was charming. It was warm. I enjoyed reading it – it didn’t feel like work, it didn’t feel like something I was obligated to do. I loved it, this sweet, frank, open protagonist and the cast of mostly good-hearted characters surrounding him. And for the first time in months, I devoured a book in a day.
It was good timing, because her second novel, The Upside of Unrequited, was published April 11 with Penguin. I pre-ordered it right after I finished Simon, because I was excited about reading another book that I knew would make me feel warm and happy. There was something about Simon that made me trust the author. I felt as though she was a safe pair of hands and as though her warmth and gentleness would guide me through a second book carefully – and I was absolutely right.
Unrequited is every bit as gorgeous as Simon. It doesn’t have that same element of ‘Who’s Blue?’ mystery, but the gentle unfurling of Molly’s character and the way she blossomed was every bit as compelling. I don’t think I’ve read any books that reminded me so acutely of the way I felt when I was a teenager. There are certain feelings that a lot of writers don’t talk about – that sick sense of jealousy, the sort of jealousy that doesn’t turn you into Iago but that infects your life and your mind and your relationships nonetheless. That yearning and that longing – they’re things that a lot of people dismiss but that Albertalli has described perfectly and carefully. I’ve felt that sick nauseous sensation of seeing people I love move on without me and it’s something that I haven’t seen a lot in fiction. Albertalli described that feeling perfectly, and without condemnation – with tenderness, in fact.
Her train has left the station. And all I can do is try to catch the next one in the same direction. Or I don’t. And we grow apart.
Even now in my twenties, that’s something that I can identify with. It isn’t just about growing up – it’s a universal feeling that sucker punched me repeatedly over the course of reading this book. Being single when my friends are getting married and buying houses with their partners, being happy for them and yet feeling that sick rolling feeling of watching them move on without me. ‘Mr Frodo, don’t go where I can’t follow’, except with moving out of London or finding people they want to spend their lives with instead of getting sucked in by the dark powers of the one ring. I loved the way that Albertalli managed to find that perfect point between sincerely trying to be happy for your friends and also wanting to be happy yourself, without turning Molly into a huge sap.
I liked Molly a lot. I thought that she was a great and realistic character and I liked that she was fat, and the way that Albertalli described that as Molly made all the little adjustments that the other characters wouldn’t think of, like wearing leggings and cardigans, to feel a little more confident about herself. I liked Molly’s moms – although there were times where her dialogue with them didn’t quite ring true, tbh – and I loved her little brother. I thought her relationship with Cassie, in all its loving messiness, was gorgeously described. I felt as though all of the characters were very whole and like people with their own inner worlds who had just walked onto the page, instead of characters written into the story to better enable Molly’s story to be told. I think that’s probably partly because this is such a complete universe, taking in Simon too (and I LOVED the glimpses we got of him, and oh god, Abby, lovely delightful Abby, and the way her relationship with Nick is developing, screeching noises of love and joy). I’m excited about the Leah book coming out next, and I’m hoping that we get a little more of Molly and her family in it.
Right! Let us move on. Reid. Let’s talk about white sneakered Game Of Thrones Reid. What a love interest – a gentle geek (I’ve used the word ‘gentle’ about a hundred times in this review, but that’s because ‘gentle’ is exactly what this book is). The way that their relationship is described is very sweet. I felt as though it was a very mature love. We’ve all had crushes that feel as though they’re the most important thing in the world, but at the end of the day, real love is the thing that’s safe and comforting and that will hold you warm and tight and secure. Reid was that for Molly. I thought it was going to be a more traditional love triangle between Molly and Will and Reid and was glad that it wasn’t – not only has that story been done a million times but this felt more realistic. Having something real and not quite knowing whether or not you want to reach out and take it. Relatable even now in my twenties? Hell yes. And you know what else I love about this couple? They treat each other kindly. There are a few misunderstandings but that’s necessary for, you know, plot. But they’re good to each other. Molly’s a little embarrassed by him and nervous about what other people might think, but that’s okay – no character is perfect, nor should they be. Reid makes a couple of mistakes too but he’s never nasty or cruel or rakishly dashing in a way that a lot of writers think is charming but actually demonstrates that the character’s kind of messed up. He’s open about his feelings and devoted to Molly and he treats her well. The relationship between Cassie and Mina was equally touching and affectionately written. I particularly loved the way that Cassie wants to keep it to herself initially in a way that drives Molly nuts and that she later understands. Caitlin Moran once wrote something about all the wrong relationships that you analyse with your friends a million times over, and then when you find the right person, you know they’re the one because you don’t need to talk about them any more, because you’re certain. That was Reid and Molly and Cassie and Mina, and it was beautiful to read.
As has been pretty obvious through this whole piece, I thought this book was delightful. It was warm and sweet and filled with a golden glow of affection, along with a sort of deep truthfulness that appeals to me even now.
It’s butterflies and haziness and heart eyes, but underneath all that, there’s this bass line of I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this is me. I can’t quite articulate the sweetness of that feeling. It’s finding out the door you were banging on is finally unlocked. Maybe it was unlocked the whole time.
As Alan Bennett wrote in The History Boys, ‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours’. This book reached out and took my hand with its very first line, and didn’t let go until the last page.