Tuesday, February 13, 2018

#CBR10 Review #05: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

I’ve definitely seen Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda reviewed a number of times by Cannonballers in the past few years, and was always interested to read it but for some reason never did. Enter my best friend who surprised me with an early birthday present of some books, with this among them. And immediately after receiving it we went to a movie and what do we see? A preview for the upcoming movie adaptation called Love, Simon. Talk about coincidence, especially since I was insanely enamored by the cuteness that appeared in the preview. But did that apparent sweetness also come through in the novel source material? Sure did! And my heart is warm after reading. Because as much as I complain about love and romance, we all know that I am just goofy and really am a romantic at heart and just love a little feel-good fluff, but not without some hearty themes in there, of course!

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is from the point of view of a teenager named Simon, who is gay but hasn’t told anyone in his life yet. After seeing an anonymous post from a fellow gay student at his school who goes by “Blue”, he began emailing back and forth with a similarly anonymous identity. And all is well and the two are cute and getting to know each other nicely, but everything goes helter-skelter in Simon’s life when his emails are discovered by a fellow student, who then attempts to blackmail Simon with this information into letting him get close to Simon’s cute friend, Abby. And so… what’s a nervous boy to do? Because no matter how well you think people might take a coming-out, it’s always awkward and never really a thing people get excited about. At least, for me it hasn’t been, and so in certain parts of this novel my heart just squeezed into a little ball of anxiety, because I felt for Simon: you really come to care about him. He feels like a real teenager with complex emotions, and learning that Becky Albertalli has worked with a lot of young people and gender non-conforming youth really made sense to me as you can tell that she worked hard to make at least Simon feel like a true person that isn’t just the caricature of a teenager as adults often see them.

There are a lot of familiar young adult themes in this novel (friendship, relationships, identity, etc), and I have read a number of LGBT+ novels in the past to make these coming-out story tropes all the more familiar. But what struck me as a good addition to this was the anger at being “outed” before ready by someone else: how the intent may not be necessarily bed, but it still takes something away from a person. I haven’t really seen that as articulated in a novel before, but it is definitely a subject with which I am familiar and I feel a lot of people can relate to. And also the concept of continual coming-out: it’s not just a one-off thing, it’s a moment you calculate in your mind with everyone you meet, as a continual process with continual questions as to who and why and how and when. It doesn’t matter how easily you think someone will take it, you never know how a dynamic will change, and I think this is articularted very well within the novel.
 “I don’t know how to tell them something like this and still come out of it feeling like Simon. Because if Leah and Nick don’t recognize me, I don’t even recognize myself anymore.” – pg. 133

Something that I also thought about a lot while reading this novel was the idea of selfishness in youth. I remember a conversation with my friend who said she disliked the film The Edge of Seventeen because the protagonist was so “whiny and selfish”. And I thought, well yes, that’s what it’s like to be a teenager: you think so much from your limited view point, and also the girl in that movie was clearly in pain and no one seemed to be noticing that? I don’t know but that comment seemed so devoid of understanding of the point. And so I think about the teen protagonists of other novels and how many of them balance a fine line between sympathetic and just plain annoying. I think Simon, here, strikes a good combination of showing that somewhat self-centered nature that most of us have in our young years, but also with a caring nature about him, as well as a sympathetic turn in that a lot of his self-centered nature deals with a big issue that he doesn’t know how to talk about with others and so causes him to close off to those around him a bit. But he also get’s called out for some of the things he does, and has to face the reality that he’s not the only one struggling, and that his actions do affect the people around him, such as not taking his friend Abby’s feelings into account when dealing with his blackmail situation. But it also really shows how his friends don't fully get how his experience of being closeted is so hard for him, because they themselves haven't experienced it themselves. So, all of this is to say, I think Albertalli dealt with what could have easily been portrayed as just another whiny “why-me?” teen, and taken it to a more real-feeling and complex level. Because teenagers may be children, but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand the world and don’t have complicated emotions and deal with complicated things! I think a lot of people brush off youth as being dumb, reckless, and egocentric, but there’s so much to more them than that, and I always appreciate a nice portrayal of this in fiction. Why as we grow older, do we suddenly want to distance ourselves from formative and growing years? Why do we not want to even associate with younger generations, which so often contain a lot of awesome young people with big dreams, bug hearts, and great ideas?

But with all these good aspects, there was still something stopping me from truly loving it and giving it a full five stars: really it comes down to just a bit of a disconnect for me in some areas. One of these aspects is just that the language used made me cringe in some parts, especially in the email-correspondence or Simon’s inner narration: little phrases or references which obviously are pretty recent and relevant but boy did the make me cringe at times. Do teens really talk like that? I guess it’s been a while since I’ve been one or really interacted with them in a larger capacity so who is to say! Still, it just felt a little awkward in terms of the flow of the writing at times. I also always feel a bit of a disconnect with YA novels too whenever they describe some dynamics and groups at high school. This one didn’t have quite the same disparity from my own experience, as people from different “groups” still interact and know each other from classes or clubs, etc, in this novel, but I always hit a bit of a wall with these things since my experience with high school was never quite like how all the movies and books like to portray it. Or maybe I just wasn’t involved in any of the right clubs or groups or enough stuff in general (I mean, its not like anyone ever came to watch our games when I played for the High School Curling team…)

Finally, the one other nitpick I might have with this novel is that some of the side characters felt a little one-note. I mean, the story is about Simon more than anyone, but there is always a little more for more dimensionality in side-characters to better understand them and how they fit into the protagonist’s life, right? But then again, there are only so many pages in a book before it ends, and there are other emotional aspects to fill it with. And I DID say that maybe Simon was a little self-focused throughout the novel (I mean given what he was struggling with I don’t entirely blame him), but it still felt maybe a little too trope-y for my taste. Like they were all trying to break out of the pre-designed simple shell of stock characters, but only a slight few actually made it out.

That said, I did find Simon to be an engaging and sympathetic character. And not just because from time to time he said things that sound like they came directly out of my own mouth. Well, alright, that definitely helped me fall in love with him all the more quickly. I mean, his friends all poke fun at him for being such a mushy romantic at one point, despite trying to be all cynical about relationships all the time, which is 100% a conversation my friends and I have had, always making fun of me for being a total sucker for a cute love story all while claiming love is a sham (but also, how would I know). At one point the he also says:
“Cranking Sufjan Stevens at top volume doesn’t solve anything, which is probably why people don’t crank Sufjan Stevens.” – pg. 260
And I mean wow, if that ain’t something that I would have said in my teen years. Or every year after that. Or last week even. Shhhh, don’t worry about it. Oh, and I also cracked up at the moment where Simon says:
“I’m just so sick of straight people who can’t get their shit together.” – pg. 189
Because yeah, I’ve definitely mentioned that things were “straight people nonsense” a time or two around my friends. All in good sport, all in good sport! But also with some minor shade.

But anyways, as always I’ve gone on for far far too long. And so I bid thee adieu with my parting thoughts: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a lovely novel and I absolutely zoomed through it. I definitely recommend it for both young adults and YA-loving adults alike. Is it revolutionary? Maybe not. But it sure is a lovely ride. I held my breath in a few spots and my heart skipped a few beats, and I just let myself get wrapped up in the overall gentle nature of it. But not without some serious sting at times too! My romantic little heart does indeed approve of this message, and I will absolutely see the upcoming film version at some point when it comes out (no pun intended) later this year.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]
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