IN THE FIRST CHAPTER of What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera, Arthur Seuss — one of our two teenage narrators/protagonists — confesses to the reader:
I believe in love at first sight. Fate, the universe, all of it. But not how you’re thinking. I don’t mean it in the our souls were split and you’re my other half forever and ever sort of way. I just think you’re meant to meet some people. I think the universe nudges them into your path.
This is both a thematic statement and a promise. Dear Reader, the authors have announced, this is a love story. Thanks to the book’s clever physical humor and Arthur’s quippy wit, it seems safe, in fact, to call it a romantic comedy.
Once upon a time, the romantic comedy was a respected art form (think: Billy Wilder, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare). But then, at some point (I’m going to arbitrarily call it the late 1990s), it became easy to write off romantic comedies as inherently saccharine, shallow, oversimplified, and formulaic. Albertalli and Silvera turn that around here. Their novel refreshingly oversimplifies nothing, conveying all the complexity inherent in a new love without ever abandoning the commitment to entertain. The authors manage this feat by relying less on manufactured sexual tension and clichéd declarations than on the big questions that make honest romantic love a bottomless wellspring of dramatic potential. They’ve given us a love story that makes romance cool again. I’m going to cross my fingers and pray that this is the beginning of a trend, or the first sign of a recovery from one.
Here’s the gist: 16-year-old Arthur is in New York City for the summer with his parents, interning at his mother’s law firm. He misses his friends back in Georgia and yearns for a Broadway-worthy romance. Ben Alejo, a New York native, is suffering through summer school, reeling from a breakup that unhinged his friend squad, and pretty certain that the universe is a love-destroying jerk. When the two boys meet-cute at a post office, only to be dramatically parted before exchanging names, phone numbers, or Instagram handles, they defy the odds to find one another again. Even with the summer fading fast toward the moment when Arthur will have to exit stage right back to Georgia, the boys build a romance worth remembering and a friendship worth fighting for.
Perhaps one of the things that made romantic comedies uncool a couple of decades ago was the overwhelming homogeneity of their characters: white, pretty, straight, cisgender teenagers, twentysomethings, or — if the female character was going to have a whiff of desperation about her — thirtysomethings, mostly upper-middle or upper-upper class, with the occasional insertion of a lower-middle-class character if the creators were going for a Cinderella/other-side-of-the-tracks vibe. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with any of those characteristics, nor is there anything wrong with retellings of Cinderella, but these conventions work to limit the stories that can be told, and they ultimately fail to represent the vast majority of lived experiences. Unfortunately, when love stories involved characters beyond these narrow confines, they too often felt lecturey, good for us. And they were never funny.
As I lost myself in Arthur and Ben’s story, however, I almost forgot that their romance could be seen by some as a political statement. The book’s themes are larger than politics, its lessons transcend the sexual orientations of its characters, and it never tells its reader how to feel. Instead, it shows its readers how the characters feel, providing an opportunity for empathy and private reflection. Even when the boys are accosted by a vitriolic homophobe on the subway, the scene is rendered with such a close focus on how this interaction shifts something within the characters that it is never diminished to the status of a mere example. I imagine that the authors were tempted to pull aside the curtain just a little to make this a “teaching” moment, but their restraint allows the reader to remain immersed in the story — which is the much more powerful teacher, anyway.
Albertalli and Silvera have peopled their novel with a supporting cast that is just as specific, unique, and enchanting as their leads. Dylan is Ben’s platonic bromance best friend, a serial monogamist on the cusp of a relationship with a cute barista who he’s certain will be The One, and whom Ben is certain will soon be The Ex. Jessie and Ethan complete Arthur’s Georgia friend squad; the strain that Arthur has felt in his friendship with Ethan ever since he came out at Junior Prom is not just in his head, but it’s also not what he thinks it is. The tension between Arthur’s parents has turned up a notch (or 10) ever since web developer Dad lost his job, leaving Arthur prepared for The Divorce Sit-Down any day. Hudson and Harriet are Ben’s and Dylan’s most recent exes, respectively; in the not-so-distant past, the four were an inseparable quadrangle, but now they’ve divided into two camps that have unfriended and unfollowed each other, leaving holes in their social circles not easily filled.
Each of these relationships asks the reader a thematically relevant question. Can friendship survive romance? Can love last? How does love last? How do you know The One when you meet him or her? What happens after a breakup? These are the sorts of universal queries that bring us to stories in the first place. Albertalli and Silvera don’t offer simple answers but, rather, a few questions of their own: What if there’s never a breakup? What if love does last? What if it’s us? Told from alternating points of view (Ben’s and Arthur’s), this book made me laugh out loud, crave the next chapter, and stay up way later than I should have. It also made me think. After finishing the last page, I found myself remembering that this is how a good romantic comedy should always feel — entertaining, nourishing, and accidentally enlightening.
I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t reveal what inspires Ben toward the end to think: “[M]aybe some people pop back [into your life] after you thought they were gone for good. […] [M]aybe this is the do-over I needed all along.” That quote, though, feels like a perfect encapsulation of the state of the modern romantic comedy. In light of the recent success of Crazy Rich Asians, a riotously delightful romance, I can only hope that the genre is on the verge of a comeback. Maybe this is the do-over we’ve all been waiting for.