Not interested in my BookCon adventures? Click here to skip down to the good, bad, & weird of What If It’s Us.
My most anticipated ARC of Bookcon 2018 was a book I hadn’t even heard of. Before I walked into the Javits Center that weekend, What If It’s Us (WIIU) was nothing but a Dear Evan Hansen song lyric to me. Of course, to everyone else at BookCon it was a long-awaited collab between beloved YA authors Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera. While Albertalli and Silvera have both been on my radar for a while, I’d never read any of their solo books – and I’d never heard of WIIU. But the hype around this book was undeniable, it felt like everyone at BookCon was dying for a copy. I’m not exaggerating: when David and I were waiting in line to play Epic Reads Plinko at the end of the final day of the Con, a crowd of spectators had gathered around the board, and people were actually working their way up and down the line trying to tempt us with trades should we get lucky and hit the sole image of the WIIU cover at the bottom of the Plinko board.
Even at the end of a long weekend of book-induced insanity, there was something special about the hype surrounding WIIU. So, when David’s Plinko coin landed neatly into the coveted slot and the Harper Teen representative handed him one of the final remaining copies, we were thrilled. We threw the book in his backpack and booked it (heh.) out of the Con. Did we know a single thing about this book? Nope. Were we psyched to have our hands on it anyway? Absolutely.
What If It’s Us is a YA love story told in alternating perspectives. Arthur, written by Albertalli, is a doe-eyed boy from Georgia spending the summer before his senior year of high school interning at his mom’s New York City law offices. Ben, penned by Silvera, is a Puerto Rican native New Yorker who is spending his summer stuck in school with his ex, Hudson, who he’s not quite as over as he’d like to be. After a post office meet-cute so adorable it must be destiny, Arthur and Ben spend the first third of their story trying to find each other. Once they do, Arthur’s inexperience and Ben’s hang-ups make for a more complicated romance than they’d hoped for. But despite the many bumps in their road, Arthur and Ben fight to make things work – even with the end of summer looming.
The Good – “Infinite do-overs.”
It takes Arthur and Ben three first dates to get finally it right. They break up twice over the course of the book. The deliciously ambiguous epilogue (spoiler alert!) shows them over a year after their fateful summer, at different colleges and both single after dating for several months. Arthur and Ben are a fan of their do-overs, and offer them to each other freely. They both come to recognize something that’s really frickin hard to understand: there are very few things you can’t undo if you’re willing to work hard enough. While I can’t say I always felt the chemistry that compelled Arthur and Ben to seek do-over after do-over, I’m glad they felt it and was thrilled to root for them as they fought for it. And in the end, after watching them work so hard to chase destiny down, it was nice to see them both come to accept the unanswered ‘what if’s in their story.
The Bad – Sacrificing the Parts for the Whole
Before Arthur and Ben find each other and begin their whirlwind romance, we spend Part One (“What If”) getting to know who they are when they’re not in a relationship. We learn Arthur has two things on his to-do list for his summer in New York, both of them Broadway shows: Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, and worries constantly about being accepted for who he is. We learn Ben has a rock-solid best friend named Dylan (a wannabe Romeo who is easily one of the highest points of the book – spin off, please!) and is insecure about his own intelligence. As readers, we get to know Arthur and Ben so well in this first part that, when they finally get together, each boy feels like an obstacle to our relationship with the other. These fears and desires become plot points in the relationship and nothing more: Ben ruins Arthur’s shot at seeing Hamilton by being late; Arthur inadvertently contributes to Ben’s insecurity, making him afraid to admit he’s in summer school. But we never find out if Arthur got to see Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen; and when we learn that Ben successfully graduated from high school on time, it’s not clear if he actually sees himself any more positively for it. It was hard to become so attached to such rich characters, only to feel like that richness was sacrificed for the sake of a relationship that may or may not last.
The Weird – The Representation of Nerd Culture
It’s only been 5 years since I was Arthur and Ben’s age, but I feel like they exist in a totally different world. They’re both total dorks – Arthur for Broadway musicals and Ben for fantasy and video games – and they relish in those parts of each other. Revealing their less main-stream hobbies to each other plays a huge role in building intimacy between Arthur and Ben, and gets a fair bit of page space. So it was strange to me that the rest of their world seemed so instantly on board with such high geekiness levels. For example, while searching for Arthur at a Yale mixer, Ben encounters a cute boy named Kent. As you might expect at a mixer for incoming college students (and posers like Ben), the conversation drifts to majors pretty quickly:
I just keep it honest. “I’m big on writing.”
“Me too!” Kent says. “Well, I used to be. Don’t make fun, but I used to write a lot of fanfiction.”
Did I miss something here? Are we open about our fanfic habits now? Are high schoolers going around bragging about their Pokémon fic days like it’s a badge of honor? How can Ben be too mortified to show a single soul his fantasy novel but have a perfectly normal conversation with an Ivy League student about Pikachu fan fiction? Maybe that’s not an abnormal exchange for today’s teens. If that’s the case, more power to them – and to Albertalli and Sivera for capturing this brave new age. But to me, the dorkier moments in the book felt disingenuous – like they were shoehorned in at best and fan-service at worst.
Like Arthur and Ben, What If It’s Us is sweet, well-intentioned, and a little bit misguided. 3/5 Stars.