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“It’s a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost don’t even notice I’m being blackmailed.”
Becky Albertalli opens her 2015 debut young adult novel Simon v. the Homo Sapiens Agenda with this familiar anecdote. As the story continues, it becomes clear to the reader that this is a formula they have seen before. It’s about a suburban teenager and his friends whose biggest challenges are seemingly having to navigate love in high school. And, even better, there’s a mystery crush! Wow, what a breath of fresh air.
To be more specific, Simon vs. is about Simon Spier, a seventeen-year-old resident of Shady Creek, a fictional suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, who faces anxiety about his homosexuality. He isn’t out of the closet yet. He has supportive parents, friends who will accept him for who he is, and lives in a community where he will probably not face violence or harassment for being who he is. Still, however, Simon hesitates. He isn’t ready to come out yet. The only person he shares his feelings with is Blue, an anonymous online pen pal he emails. Blue goes to Creekwood, Simon’s school, and is also gay, but this is all he knows about him. This is the first important message that the book gives to its viewers—that coming out doesn’t have to be immediate and only has to happen when the person feels safe and comfortable.
Unfortunately, Simon doesn’t get that choice. In a weak plot point that falls out of development a few chapters into the novel, Martin Addison, one of Simon’s classmates, logs into Simon’s email, finds Blue’s emails, and blackmails Simon by threatening to reveal his sexuality to the whole school if Simon doesn’t help him hook up with his crush, Abby Suso. The whole thing is ridiculous, but Simon agrees. What ensues later forces Simon to step out of his comfort zone and accept himself, even if others won’t accept him back.
Let’s make this clear: Simon vs. has had a far-reaching influence on today’s youth. The book is beloved by both fans and critics, and it won the William C. Morris award, given to a YA novel by a first-time author. A recent film based on the book, Love, Simon, was a massive commercial success. It had a $57.5 million box office and holds a 92 percent rating on RottenTomatoes. All the praise for Simon vs. led Albertalli to release two additional novels about these same characters- The Upside of Unrequited and Leah on the Offbeat.
But what makes Simon vs. special? What pulls this otherwise mediocre story from the bunch and puts it on a shelf of its own?
I will say, I enjoyed Simon vs. much more than I thought I would. Simon himself is entertaining, richly characterized, and a delightful narrator, something a lot of YA novels are missing. However, nearly all of the supporting characters—namely, Simon’s friends—are bland, boring, and given little to no personality. They’re used as props in Simon’s quest to find his Blue, whose “secret identity” ends up being pretty predictable as the book continues. The email exchanges between Simon and Blue are among the novel’s high points, and they are where Albertalli’s writing really shines. Apart from this, her writing style is mediocre at best. It seems that she, a middle-aged mom, is trying too hard to become relatable to teenagers. At certain instances, the plot feels artificial. There are times where the dialogue starts to go into territories I, myself a teenager, have not seen in actual teenagers. There were a few lines that actually made me cringe, such as -
“I guess it’s a little awful that we have five computers—Shady Creek’s that kind of suburb, but still,” (Albertalli 150)
"'You're platonically obsessed with her!' she yells. 'It's cool, though. She's such a f**king upgrade.'
'Female best friend four point f**king oh. Now available in the prettiest, perkiest package ever!'" (Albertalli 283)
Some reviewers, such as in this The Guardian article, claimed Simon vs. and its characters felt “real.” Personally, I didn’t feel that way. I’m around the same age as Simon and his friends are in the book and I live in one of the suburbs of Atlanta that Albertalli based Shady Creek on. I’m pretty sure Albertalli, at least partly, based Creekwood on my high school. These kids don’t remind me of my peers at all. Not one bit. Martin Addison is a new breed to me. I’ve met lots of nasty kids in my lifetime, but never someone who would take a moment like Simon’s coming out moment away from him over something as arbitrary and stupid as a crush. Albertalli tries to redeem Martin by giving him a gay brother and having him write a lengthy apology email, but that does not excuse his actions and I hate that, after all the drama, Albertalli treats what Martin did as if it was no big deal. Leah, Simon's best friend, is awful to Simon for the majority of the book for absolutely no reason at all. For teenagers, Simon and his friends seem to have an awful lot of free time. The creeksecrets tumblr page is strange and unrealistic. Most of my friends aren’t nearly as focused on school-wide drama and in everyone’s business as the kids in this novel are.
Also—Becky Albertalli? It’s not a play, it’s a musical. Thought I’d put that out there. And teenagers don't use Facebook anymore. Given Simon vs. is supposed to be set in present day, I'm not sure why it played such a big role in this novel.
But I’m not sure if they were supposed to be real. Simon vs. is fiction, after all. It isn’t groundbreaking fiction, nothing revolutionary. Albertalli takes little to no risks in this novel. Simon and his friends are almost ridiculously well-behaved- the most any of them do the whole book that's even remotely bad is drink alcohol. Apart from two incidents (one at the beginning and another towards the end of the novel) and a sprinkling of inappropriate language throughout, the book is purely PG, and while it is a safe novel, it’s still an important one.
What makes Simon vs. special is, quite simply, introduction of LGBTQ+ characters to the YA romance novel (and, in Love, Simon’s case, the rom-com) stratosphere. It’s a fluffy love story, without the intense homophobia, violence, and tragedy of most gay novels. And while the latter may be the more realistic life for some gay men, books like Simon vs. are a step in the right direction for the LGBTQ+ community. They symbolize the normalization of gay relationships and tell young queer people that they have as much of a possibility of happiness as anyone else, and that message is more meaningful than a world of inconsistencies.