Authors: Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera
Edition: Paperback ARC
Read: 19th – 23rd August 2018
CWs: homophobia, racism, cheating, panic attacks
Arthur is only in New York for the summer, but if Broadway has taught him anything, it’s that the universe can deliver a showstopping romance when you least expect it.
Ben thinks the universe needs to mind its business. If the universe had his back, he wouldn’t be on his way to the post office carrying a box of his ex-boyfriend’s things.
But when Arthur and Ben meet-cute at the post office, what exactly does the universe have in store for them?
Maybe nothing. After all, they get separated.
Maybe everything. After all, they get reunited.
But what if they can’t quite nail a first date . . . or a second first date . . . or a third?
What if Arthur tries too hard to make it work . . . and Ben doesn’t try hard enough?
What if life really isn’t like a Broadway play?
But what if it is?
Certain things in the world are perfect when paired together. Books and tea. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Movies and popcorn. Pancakes and maple syrup. The list goes on. And Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera need to be added to it.
What If It’s Us is a humorous, heart-warming story about a blossoming summer romance, and the authors’ combined writing and characterisation make it a delightful read. The book follows Arthur and Ben as they try to find each other again after a chance meeting and an instant connection in a New York post office. But New York is big. Really big. And Ben and Arthur end up traversing a good portion of it in their endeavours to find each other, but time isn’t on their side. Arthur is only here for the summer, and Ben is busy studying to resit his exams at summer school, making us question whether they’re going to be able to be together.
The characters are the focal point of this novel. Arthur is flamboyant, cheerful, and an avid Hamilton fan; Broadway is pretty much his one true love until he meets Ben. His innocence and honesty make him incredibly easy to warm to, and his goofiness, easy humour, and tenacity have all the hallmarks of a Becky Albertalli character. Ben, on the other hand, is definitely an Adam Silvera character. His composed thoughtfulness and introspection make him seem a lot more reserved than Arthur, but as the story progresses we learn that he enjoys writing and is vulnerable and compassionate with those he cares about most. Where Arthur is child-like in his joy and lets it show in abundance, Ben saves his for the moments that really matter to him. As they get to know each other, Arthur’s kindness and enthusiasm begin to erode some of Ben’s cynicism and Ben’s down-to-earth nature helps Arthur mature. They two are very different, but they balance each other well.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Becky Albertalli/Adam Silvera novel without a great squad of fully developed, charismatic secondary characters. Ben’s friends Sam and Dylan are united in their love of coffee, but while Dylan is like a brother to Ben, asking about his novel and helping him search for Arthur, Sam’s investigative skills make her the real star of the show. Arthur’s friends from back home, Jessie and Ethan, provide some of the funniest group chat moments I’ve ever come across in a book, and when all these characters assemble in one room they become the epitome of ‘squad goals’.
The narrative strikes an effective balance between quirky, dramatic, and laugh-out-loud funny. (I laughed in the middle of a train station while reading it, so can confirm the ‘out loud’ part.) Certain sections of dialogue have a very Simon Vs brand of humour, and others hint at the soulful, existential conversations from They Both Die At The End, but on the whole the writing style is seamless. Albertalli and Silvera’s styles blend together adroitly, and with the flair.
If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to endear a novel to me, it’s smart plotting. And this book, my friends, has smart plotting. The authors manage to keep all the near-meetings, character nuances, back stories, mysteries, and sub-plot developments progressing cohesively, while maintaining tension and ensuring our emotional investment. That’s no mean feat. Especially from two interweaving POVs. It’s like playing chess, but instead of trying to win, the authors are moving all the pieces in the same direction and making them coalesce for one goal. The pacing of the novel matches the plot perfectly; it begins to speed up as Ben and Arthur get closer to finding each other, and once they do it slows down so we can enjoy their interactions.
Although the book is based in the real-world setting of New York, the world-building is still top notch. Authors sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that, because their characters aren’t in a fantasy setting, they don’t need to build the world as much. Not true. Real-world settings can sometimes require more detailed world-building than fantasy to make them seem accurate and realistically represented, especially if readers are familiar with the city or place being described. Albertalli and Silvera give us this detail in abundance. From Arthur’s perspective New York is rendered in all it’s frenetic, bold glory; it’s vibrant and full of possibility, and really tasty food. The city isn’t very tourist-friendly, but it’s still somewhere exciting to be explored. For Ben, on the other hand, New York is just New York. It’s familiar and it’s home, but it’s not special. Until he begins to see it through Arthur’s eyes.
Fate and time are big themes in this book. Arthur makes frequent references to the stars aligning and the universe having plans for him (usually screwing him over) despite only being in NY for the summer. Even Ben, who doesn’t seem to believe in fate, marvels at the things that have happened to bring them together. But despite all their jokes about the universe conspiring to help them meet each other, Arthur and Ben’s romance isn’t perfect. Their first, second, and third dates don’t go to planned, and they argue and say the wrong things. This was something I love about the novel. Their relationship isn’t romanticised to be this perfect beacon of light and joy like in a lot of YA contemporaries, but instead reflects the everyday issues and hardships that couples actually face. Ben and Arthur miss events, they bicker, they worry about what the future holds and they show us the beauty in the imperfections of love. It’s realistic and still romantic despite not being ‘perfect’, and the book is ten times better for exploring love in this way.
Diversity is another wonderful aspect of this novel. There’s gay and Jewish rep, Ben is Puerto Rican, and Arthur has ADHD. The book is own voices for Puerto Rican rep, gay rep, and Jewish rep, and Adam Silvera includes some beautiful pieces of Puerto Rican culture in the story that really enrich the scenes Ben shares with his family. I particularly loved the moments when Ben speaks in Spanish to Arthur; the words aren’t translated on the page, but we can deduce their meaning from the context of the scene, and Arthur’s reactions to hearing another language are so pure and wholesome that you can’t help but smile. Albertalli and Silvera also discuss internalised racial biases and homophobia through several poignant scenes in the novel, and both these forms of discrimination are condemned on the page. The book also doesn’t shy away from challenging white, straight privilege and encouraging readers to reflect on how to be a better ally to the queer community.
What If It’s Us is a sweet, uplifting novel that evokes joy, heart-ache, and hope in equal measures. It’s gripping, diverse, and tremendously entertaining; this is the definition of a page-turner. The ending will divide opinion, there’s no denying it. You’ll love it, or you’ll be attempting to throw the book out your window (like me), but no matter where you stand, you have to admire Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera for such a bold finale.
What If It’s Us is released on 18th October in the UK and 9th October in the US. Don’t forget to check out the other blog tour stops every day from 5th to 12th October, and visit our blog tour host JM @BookFreakRevelations to enter the giveaway!