"What If It's Us" by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera
One truth about me is that I am a fucking whore for romantic comedies.
Despite the fact that I do tend towards logic — and I entirely acknowledge that the unlikely meet-cutes that typify this genre are eye-rollingly implausible — I can’t fucking help but love them.
Whether it’s Drew Barrymore, the hypochondriacal failed-writer-turned-temporary-plant-waterer showing up to 80s-has-been Hugh Grant’s apartment to tend to his foliage…
or sexually liberated Anna Faris somehow befriending her I-can-see-how-he-gets-a-new-girl-every-night neighbor Chris Evans…
I am deeply, meaningfully and irrevocably unable to see beyond the shiny, sparkly new love.
My affection for rom coms can best be summed up in gif form as the following:
Me and romantic comedies… much like this racoon and her cat… don’t belong together. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to literally devour them.
So why, you may logically ask, have I just waxed poetic about romantic comedies in what is, clearly, a fucking book review.
Because this book was literally a romantic comedy sandwiched between pieces of cardboard and topped with an adorably illustrated book jacket.
Set in New York City, this co-written novel, logically, contains dual protagonists.
Arthur is a recent NYC transplant who has temporarily traded the sleepy streets of the Georgia town he calls home for the bustling sidewalks of New York. He’s spending his summer tagging along with his mom, who’s a high-powered attorney, and doing an internship at her office to improve his chances of getting into the ivy league college of his choice.
Ben is a lifelong Alphabet City resident who’s basically forced to spend his warm-weather months in summer school, making up for some academic transgressions. And, as if being sentenced to waste June and July in the classroom isn’t painful enough, he is also nursing a broken heart, having recently split from his first boyfriend.
It is an effort to hasten the healing of said heart that leaves Ben heading into the post office, carrying a box of his ex-boyfriend’s belongings. As luck would have it, Arthur also happens to be heading into that same post office to complete a decidedly less romantic errand when he spots — and immediately falls in love (or at least lust) with — Ben.
Before the two can even have what is sure to be a beautiful moment, however, a flash mob wedding proposal divides them.
And, were this real life, that would probably have been the end of their too-short-to-even-be-called-a-love-story experience. But, because it’s not, the two boys continue thinking about each other, both independently determined to reunite and see if what started as a spark could be nurtured into a flame.
In my opinion, neither romantic novels nor romantic films work if you don’t care about the protagonists. That was most certainly not a problem here.
I literally love both of these leads.
And, because I loved them, I became invested in this couple - like my entire STRS defined benefits plan level of invested.
My commitment to them as a couple put me precariously on the edge of my seat — which is particularly risky given my notoriously shitty balance. I was worried that one of them would fuck something up and hoping beyond hope that neither of them did any of the stupid shit you invariably do when you’re taking your first newborn-giraffe-like steps into love.
This hope was amplified by the fact that this fucking dumpster fire of a world needs some pure, cheesy, innocent love.
And this novel did provide that escape from the harsh, angry reality of 2018.
As I continued to nervously read, it started to become clearer to me that this novel was, really, less of a traditional romance and more of a meaningful and thought-provoking character study. Yes, the interaction between the two boys was important — and this romance kept you reading (and awwwwing) away — but what the book was really about was who the two protagonists were, independent of each other.
It was about who Arthur and Ben were when they met, who they each became when they moved through their relationship together and who they would each ultimately become as people separate from their identities as half of a couple.
By imbuing each of the characters with effervescent charm, exploring their hidden depths (that sounds dirtier than it should have) and peppering in delightful pop culture references, co-authors Albertalli and Silvera legitimately did bring both characters to life.
And, for a solid three quarters of the book, both the romance and the exploration of these characters had me absolutely captivated. During this phase of my infatuation, I wasn’t just reading the novel. I was thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it and actively advocating for it to friends and family and strangers-who-walk-slower-than-me-so-I-can-sneak-up-on-them-and-accost-them-with-my-unsolicited-opinions.
Sadly, however, the last quarter of this book was... a bit underwhelming.
Ultimately, this novel was much like your typical relationship. It started out amazing and then... Just kind of... Fell flat.
Sure, I cared about the characters still.
I had invested in them thanks to the relative strength of the beginning.
But, as I read on, they stopped sparkling. They stopped being so amazing — so impossible not to root for.
They just became... Blah.
In fairness, maybe this is what had to happen.
Maybe it’s the truth that is so often absent in romantic comedies… those cinema fluff-pieces that I somehow just don’t know how to quit.
Maybe what made this novel not quite as amazing at the end was it actually showed the uncomfortable conclusion that we don’t see in those films. The part that occurs three weeks after the credits role when Colin Firth realizes that it’s hard to love Renee Zellweger just as she is when “just as she is” is probabbblllyyy a bit of an alcoholic and definitely too weight obsessed (please, she’s supposed to be “fat” at 130lbs… I could have mono for 6 months and I wouldn’t weight 130lbs).
But my belief that it’s probably true that things wouldn’t work out amazingly… especially for two vastly different gay boys, just taking their first stab at this thing we call love … doesn’t make it easier to read.
As I read through the final pages of this novel, I recalled a time when I was teaching the concept of metaphor and simile to a group of 8th graders. I told them that, really, what made a simile or metaphor amazing was when a writer somehow makes a comparison that is really unlikely seem entirely logical.
Acting on this advice, one of my students composed a simile I will remember always.
Love is like dog poop. It starts out hot but then, after while, it just stinks.
Now, without a doubt, this book never dropped to the level of chilled dog poop stinky, but it also didn't manage to remain as unputdownable at the end as it was at the start. And, if that wise-beyond-her-13-years 8th grader is to be believed, that makes it an even truer depiction of love.
Even with the ending as it stands, I would have a hard time not recommending this novel. Not only is it charming in its own right, it also adds to the library of contemporary YA works that provide the beautiful depictions of non-heteronormative love that have so long been absent.
It earns an enthusiastic 4 out of 5 cocktails.
I feel like this is a virtual renaissance for LGBT, young adult literature. And I am totally fucking here for it. What’s your favorite YA novel that centers around, or even just features, LGBT characters? Tell me about it in the comments, below, so I can add it to my list.