REVIEW: Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (Becky Albertalli)

10015384._SY540_Encapsulate the book in one sentence?

Simon’s gay and that’s a sort-of-a-problem-but-not-that-big-a-problem-but-he’s-a-teenager-so-everythings-kinda-tough.

Intriguing, tell me more.

Okay, so that summary’s a bit snarky. Simon is gay, and quite possibly in love with Blue, someone he only knows anonymously from the other end of an email. And now some kid called Martin has got hold of those emails, and is blackmailing him into helping Martin hook up with Simon’s friend Abby… and thus the complications ensue.

Personal Choice, Book-Pot, Re-read…?

This one’s been on my radar for ages, first for online blogosphere buzz, then because I kept seeing it in bookshops everywhere, and then for an announcement that a movie was in the works. I pay attention to books with queer protagonists, and I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to reading one that’s had such mainstream success. (That said, much buzz and expectation can lead to a lacklustre reading experience, coughqueenofthenightcough, so maybe leaving it this long was wise…)

What genre would you say it is?

It’s a YA novel. It’s a very YA novel, by which I mean it’s pretty much the epitome of the style and mode of this generations brand of very successful YA novels. (We’re looking at you, John Green.) That’s not a criticism; not every novel has to reinvent the wheel, and Simon Vs does the wheel really well (plus, it’s got the distinguishing factor that this is a gay novel, which isn’t uncommon in YA, but it’s nice to see a chart-conquering book that isn’t a male-female romance.) The cover compares it to the lovechild of Rainbow Rowell and John Green, which is indicative but not entirely spot on, in my opinion. In fact, what it reminded me the most of was early David Levithan.

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?

I read it pretty much in one go, over one night, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s sweet, its funny in the right places, it’s evocative in the right places, and it does a great job of encapsulating contemporary youth culture without being cringily awkward or patronising. (That can’t be overestimated by the way; sure, in ten years the tumblr and facebook stuff in there might date the book badly, but right now it’s spot on.) It was refreshing to have the tension of the book deflected away from any particular stress over coming out (Simon isn’t overly bothered about his blackmailer outing him, and knows his family will, on balance, be accepting) but is instead concerned over the forced outing of Blue instead. It’s an elegant undercut to the melodrama one usually expects from this kind of story. Plus, the rest of the cast of friends and enemies are entertaining, well-drawn and mostly three-dimensional, another pitfall hurdled.

So in essence, the book does everything it sets out to do really well, with a cute, appealing take on a gay protagonist. My only criticism is that the theoretically-mysterious identity of Blue is so bleedin’ obvious that it slightly undercuts the TA-DA! ending. But I’m quibbling now.

Give me a good quote:

(Okay, so there’s probably more representative quotes, but I bookmarked this one when I was reading, so I’m going with it.)

You can’t imagine how much I hated middle school. Remember the way people would look at you blankly and says, “Um, okaaaaaaay,” after you finished talking? Everyone just had to make it so clear that, whatever you were thinking or feeling, you were totally alone. The worst part, of course, was that I did the same thing to other people.

Bad reviews? What do you mean, bad reviews?

(I like to read bad reviews of books I like. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions and this section isn’t meant as mean-spirited, but as an author it’s bad form to respond to your own reviewers. No-one said anything about other people’s. And with all apologies: this one tackles a really petty quibble, and a fairly major one.)

– “The youth culture stuff is disrespectful/pathetic/hilarious/delete as applicable. It’s not ‘the Tumblr’!” I’m guilty of this, because when I read it I wanted to snark at the use of ‘the’ in front of Tumblr. Oh, you foolish adult, I thought, thinking you are in the loop and up to date. But this is basically the only reference with a ‘the’ and I think it’s actually meant to be referring to the tumblr page (specific not universal) which is featured in the plot. A slip in editing that comes out sounding adult-down-with-the-teenspeak. I think the book did a decent job with youth culture. But then what do I know? I’m in my twenties, and apparently I call it ‘youth culture’ now.

“It is very clear that this book was not written for the queer community. It was written for straight people. It is hard to say why but if you aren’t straight, you can tell its not for you, but for the majority.”

Okay, I won’t be flippant about this one. I actually sort of take the point–there is something of that feeling when you read this. I don’t think this was because the writer targeted a mainstream (read: straight) audience; I’m more inclined to suggest that it was the universality of the story that enables its mainstream success. Which is a subtly different thing.

I think the feeling arises from the fact that Simon never struggles with the idea that he is gay; this might be a coming-out story, superficially, but it’s not a coming-to-terms story. Any difficulties he might have had realising he was gay are never shown or discussed. In fact, it’s what I quite liked in principal: avoiding another tedious hand-wringing coming out story. Queer lit and YA has moved past the need for every story to be that. And it is certainly a good thing that a bestselling YA novel can feature a gay protagonist who exhibits little-to-no concern that he is gay.

But here’s the catch: when you’ve grown up queer, that struggle is more than likely an integral part of your adolescence.The success of Simon Vs is that Simon’s story manages to feel universal, and so while it’s great that a gay protagonist can now be just as much a lead, with just as many adolescent insignificant-but-therefore-completely-huge problems as any other protagonist, the catch-22 is that there’s this lack of specificity that for some queer readers is a problem. When we read a story look like this, we’re looking for identification. That kind of recognition is hard to come by in books and media, and so it’s precious when we find it, and there wasn’t much of that reflected back at me in Simon Vs because this is not the story of me, or probably anyone from my generation. And that’s fine. We don’t have to love this book like a book written only for us; we can love this book as a book written for everyone.

 

Is it available today?

‘Tis indeed. It’s bloody everywhere.

Soundtrack of choice: 

It should be Between The Bars by Elliott Smith, but I’m actually going with my favourite Elliott Smith song, Let’s Get Lost. Also, have some Sufjan Stevens too.

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