What are the chances you’ll meet The One while he’s dropping off a breakup box at the post office? That’s exactly how it happens for Arthur, on a random coffee run while interning for the summer in New York. This serendipitous, storybook meet-cute is enough to justify his belief that the Universe is on their side.
Not so for Ben, fresh from a breakup and forced to see his ex every day at summer school as he struggles not to repeat eleventh grade. He meets a cute guy while trying to get rid of his ex’s things at the post office, finds he can’t afford the shipping fee, and finally, fails to tell the cute guy his name before they’re separated by a flash mob. The Universe is totally having fun at his expense.
This fateful afternoon between two distant souls placed deliberately into each other’s orbits sets the stage for Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera’s new collaboration – and poses the question – What If It’s Us?
The story is told in the alternating points of view of our two protagonists. Born and raised in Georgia, Arthur Seuss is an intern at the New York branch of the law firm his mom is A Big Deal in. He’s enamored by the bustle of the big city, is headed for Yale after graduation, and has ADHD. (He’s also short.)
What transpires between him and Ben is his first real relationship, so he views it all with optimism and hope. But it’s also this period when you’re fresh out of the closet that you’re most vulnerable to rejection, and while he celebrates his freedom to pursue romance with the boy he wants, Arthur also has to contend with the anxiety and fear that his friends might not be as enthusiastic about who he is.
Ben Alejo is as different a guy from Arthur as could possibly be. He’s a native New Yorker, is of Puerto Rican descent, has landed himself in summer school after the whirlwind of his failed relationship, writes a self-insert fantasy novel in his spare time, and apparently has lips “shaped exactly like Emma Watson’s”.
It’s through Ben’s eyes that we see the gritty side of a relationship like theirs. It’s Ben who gets harassed for cuddling with another boy on the subway, Ben who has to explain what isn’t okay to assume about Puerto Ricans, Ben who feels self-conscious that he can neither make it into nor afford to go to an Ivy League school like Arthur. For all of Arthur’s buoyant belief that it’s them, it’s Ben who has his feet firmly on the ground about all the ways that it might not be.
On “It’s us”
This book is very much a YA novel of the day: teenagers get life advice off Reddit, rock out to Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, and expertly navigate the intricacies of Instagram stalking. Yet at its core, What If It’s Us is still the age-old tale of teenagers falling in love. We watch two young people balance the consuming energies of wanting to believe what they have is fated…and also wanting to get each other alone for a few hours in case it isn’t. I think that no matter how old or jaded we get, something inside us will always wish that a love story will succeed, and Ben and Arthur are likeable enough separately that you’d like them together too.
A riveting story isn’t without its crests and troughs, though, and when the drama hits, you’ll realize just how invested you are in these two! Both Arthur and Ben are surrounded by a supporting cast of friends, who come with their own side plots that intersect with the main plot line and drive the story into frustratingly thorny places.
These high school kids are dramatic and dumb, but hey, it’s high school! Isn’t everyone dramatic and dumb at that age? The beautiful thing about What If It’s Us is that, despite the squabbles and misunderstandings the characters tangle themselves in, they ultimately approach their issues with honesty and a desire to forgive. These dumb, dramatic high school kids also display a maturity that you rarely see in high school novels (or even in grown-ups in real life). It’s pure and refreshing (and grown-ups in real life could learn a thing or two from it).
On “What if”
I’ll be honest and say the ending was not my usual fare. I mean that in a generational way – as a 90’s kid, I was brought up on a very narrow Disney-princess idea of a love story: Love was between a boy and a girl. You were only supposed to fall in love once (any more and you were a wanton hussy). And once you found love, you were supposed to stick with it and make it work forever (if you didn’t, you were lazy and no one should ever date you again).
What If It’s Us has a much more open approach. The characters touch on the fluidity of sexuality (it’s 2018, guys, it’s totally fine to identify as a biromantic ace), open relationships, being friends with your ex, and choosing to become exes so you’ll remain friends. My generation was raised on the idea of Happily Ever After or nothing, and in real life, it’s the pressure to keep a love pristine that also turns it toxic.
Stories like What If It’s Us take that pressure off the next generation of lovers. Stories like this give them permission to care strongly for a person yet not rush into forever straightaway, without cheapening what has been shared.
Maybe the love story of What If It’s Us only lasted a summer. That doesn’t mean that the love isn’t meaningful, or that it isn’t real, or that you can’t still be in each other’s lives when it’s over. What we can take away from Ben and Arthur is that love is always valid, no matter who shares in it and no matter how long it lasts, and if it’s within reach, it’s worth taking a chance on.
After all, the Universe being on our side is only half the battle; we’ll never know if it’s us if we only keep asking what if.
Originally published on the Fully Booked blog on November 14, 2018.
See me and fellow First Look Club member Jowana weigh in on What If It’s Us here!