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LizzieBennet

Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

SPOILER ALERT!

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is an enjoyable way to pass six hours of audiobook listening, but even though it wants to be an important LGBT novel, there's not enough of a struggle in this simple, first-love story to make it a Big Book.

 

Not much happens. Simon is a gay teen who would prefer to come out on his own terms--it's not too much to ask--and isn't ready yet. But when a classmate named Martin discovers Simon's private, anonymous interactions with another boy online, he uses that information to blackmail Simon into helping him get closer to Simon's good friend, Abby. The story is pretty much a blow-by-blow account of a happy, healthy boy's coming-out story over half a year, with this added twist of Martin blackmailing him.

 

The day-in-the-life flavor of the narration is so strong, it's difficult for me to outline the novel in much detail. For instance, there are secondary story lines about rehearsals of the musical Oliver that Simon is participating in (and Simon's incorrect guess that his theater friend Cal may be his online crush, Blue), and the smaller "coming-out" of Simon's sister as a rock-band musician, but I'd be hard-pressed to summarize the book's series of events. What you come away with are mostly three vague feelings 1. the narration has a charmingly authentic, self-absorbed teen voice, and 2. it has a nice depiction of a supportive family (rather than absent or dysfunctional one, which is sometimes the default in YA), but 3. yep, not much happens.

 
Martin's blackmailing became a weak point. A major plot point is supposed to be Martin's blackmail, and Simon's growing resentment that heterosexuals don't have to have a "coming out" moment, yet gays do, and that often the coming out is precipitated by something outside of the person's control. Simon doesn't feel ready to come out, because in some ways he feels that his whole life has already been a series of comings-out (for instance, he felt that he'd changed in his friends' eyes after they saw him drunk for the first time), and he just wants his friends to feel he's the same person he has always been. Eventually, though, Albertalli backs off and makes Martin a somewhat sympathetic character, which dilutes the precipitating event of the novel. 
 
This sort of book makes me feel hopelessly old. I don't know the music, and I don't have the slang down pat. But a part of me also feels that these choices date the novel prematurely--and do they really convey setting and character?--so I suppose even if authors can master contemporary culture in this way, perhaps they shouldn't. 
 
The authenticity of Simon's reactions. My child is gay, so I waffled between feeling equipped to criticize the authenticity of Simon's worries about his family and friends, and feeling--since I myself am not a teen and not gay--that I had no right to form any opinion. In short, I felt uncomfortably hemmed in by political correctness. I found myself secretly wondering: other than Simon's father making off-color gay jokes before he knows that Simon is gay, what struggle does Simon actually have? I suppose that's sort of the quiet point of the novel: straight people don't have to come out, they just live their lives. So here we see Simon living a fairly normal life--why is it fair that he has to think about or plan how to announce himself to those he loves?
 
Still, not telling his best friends, Leah and Nick, felt flimsy to me. "It will change how they think of me" only carries weight if we see some previous event that made their friendship falter. As it is, Simon's friends respond to his announcement pretty perfectly: for instance, Leah is upset that Simon told Abby first, but when they're sleeping over somewhere together and she's bummed about it, she tells him her feeling isn't important right now, this shouldn't be about her, it's his moment. Could a teen ever be more sensitive and articulate than that?
 
With respect to coming out to his family, there was a more interesting take, which I appreciated: other than his dad's insensitive jokes, it was almost the invasive, supportive interest and love that he was avoiding. (Nicely corroborated by Simon pulling up Alice's facebook account to stalk her boyfriend, Theo, as soon as he hears his name, right after he has come out and felt "probed" by his mom himself.) But as a reader, I had utter confidence that Simon's dad would recognize his past mistakes and support Simon wholeheartedly, which he did, and that lack of conflict diminished Simon's struggle further.
 
I would have liked to have seen Bram more "in real life." By keeping him in the background as the shy kid who doesn't participate much in the group's social scene, Albertalli hid his identity (not very well, mind you), but that means she also hid him, and missed an interesting opportunity for us to meet Bram in a different way. For some reason it doesn't feel the same to get to know him through his e-mails--which is an interesting subtle criticism of its own, I suppose: we should have been able to feel close to Bram (as Blue) through those online interactions. Maybe some readers did, and I'm odd man out on that one.
 
In sum: This novel was lighthearted, quick, and fun. It just wasn't earth-shattering. Maybe that's a great sign: we're getting progressive enough as a society that this story doesn't feel like an "important" LGBT novel, it feels like a slim story of a healthy teen's life and first love.