11:00 am EDT, March 19, 2015

‘Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda’ book review: More than the sum of its parts

An LGBT romance with a healthy dose of mystery.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli wonders what it would be like if everyone had to come out.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon Spier is sixteen and in love. Sure, he has never met the mysterious “Blue” in person, but he’s falling hard and fast for their email love letters. There’s only one problem: Blue is a boy, Simon is gay, and he hasn’t told anyone else.

It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s his secret. Coming out might look easy in the movies, but it’s another matter when you live in Atlanta, Georgia, and your well-meaning dad makes homophobic jokes. It’s not that Simon doesn’t think his parents would understand, but they make such a big deal over everything. If they overreact to him deciding to drink coffee, imagine what they’d be like if he told them he was gay.

That all changes when a classmate catches a look at his email and his secret online romance. Now Simon is being blackmailed — help set Martin up with Simon’s new friend Abby, or Martin will reveal his big secret on the school’s unofficial and gossip-fuelled Tumblr. The very same Tumblr where Simon encountered Blue in the first place.

It’s not just Simon’s neck on the line. Blue is confusing and flirtatious, but above all, secretive. All Simon knows about him is that they go to the same school, so how would Blue feel if his secret leaked out because Simon decided he wouldn’t play matchmaker? It’s up to Simon to navigate Martin’s demands without compromising himself, Blue, or his friends. Simple, right?

‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ book review

There is a lot going on in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. It is part-coming out story, part-mystery, part-love story, part-family drama, part-coming-of-age story, part epistolary novel. Those are a lot of elements for debut author Becky Albertalli to balance. Luckily for readers, she hasn’t just managed it acceptably — she has done it masterfully.

The book alternates between Simon’s first-person narrative and the emails sent between Simon and Blue. This structure helps keep the focus on the mystery of Blue’s identity, and on the pair’s blossoming romance. The emails offer additional insights into Simon’s character that his own narration does not; he is much more open with Blue than he is with himself, and the subtext of both Simon and Blue’s emails offer much for the observant reader.

While the story deals primarily with both Simon and Blue’s struggles to come out, in a sense, every character in this book is forced to come out in some way. Lack of communication is the basis for many problems faced by these characters, and Simon is the biggest culprit of all. Yet you can’t help but cheer on this sometimes awkward, mostly popular, and often obtuse protagonist.

It takes a great degree of empathy to be a good author; Albertalli has it in spades. This is what makes Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda such a joy. Every character is fully realized, no matter how much (or little) time they are given on the page. It is Simon’s story, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world stops spinning for everyone else.

All other aspects of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda are similarly considered and work just as effectively. Georgia provides a stark setting; not only are gay characters uncomfortable walking down the street holding hands, the unspoken and unofficial racial segregation pervades the book. Albertalli portrays a diverse spectrum of sexualities and gender identities with both care, and apparent ease. And while the story is ultimately a romance, the interweaving of humour and heartbreak are sure to draw laughs — and perhaps even a few tears — from readers.

Separating them out, each facet of the book is impressive, but doing so does a disservice to Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which is much more than the sum of its parts. The premise might be slightly outlandish, but the novel feels undeniably real. For any Young Adult book, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is impressive. For a debut, it is remarkable. Becky Albertalli is certainly an author to watch.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli releases on March 25 in Australia and April 7 in the United States. It is available for pre-order on Amazon and IndieBound, or you can add it to your Goodreads list.

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