Before I begin this post, I’d like to issue a couple of warnings: this post is going to cover some controversial topics, and will criticise an author many people love. I’d also like to stress that I have nothing against Becky Albertalli as a person, and don’t want to this post to be regarded as a personal attack on her- I simply find her work problematic.
I also want to stress that this post will contain spoilers for both Simon VS the Homosapiens Agenda and Leah on the Offbeat, as it is intended to be a discussion post aimed at those who are already familiar with Albertalli’s work.
As some of you might recall, I once gave Albertalli’s much-beloved Simon VS the Homosapiens Agenda a scathing review. I read the book at the peak of its popularity, and expected great things, but I was sorely disappointed. There were several reasons for this, including the poor writing and plot, but the thing that irritated me most was actually the way Albertalli addressed the issue of Simon’s sexuality. I disliked the way the entire novel revolves around the fact Simon is gay, and the way his sexuality becomes the only ‘interesting’ thing about him, and is his main ‘personality trait’. I’ve always felt like the most positive representation of the LGBTQ+ community in popular culture tends to occur when a character’s sexuality or gender identity is simply mentioned casually, rather than being a major plot point of the novel. I feel this promotes the view that someone’s sexuality doesn’t have to be seen as a ‘big deal’, or an integral part of their personality. Unfortunately, Albertalli doesn’t seem to grasp this idea. With this in mind, I approached Albertalli’s latest offering, Leah on the Offbeat, with some caution…
…And it transpires that this caution was the correct approach. I’m choosing to publish this post now as the novel was released some time ago, meaning some of my followers are likely to have read it, and may understand the issues I have with both this novel, and Simon.
My first issue with Leah was its plot… Or rather, the fact it doesn’t have one. Like Simon before it, Leah is first and foremost a “coming out” tale, which addresses Leah’s bisexuality. Essentially, the novel revolves around the fact that Leah is fully aware that she is bisexual, and has even developed strong feelings for another girl, but both Leah and her love interest, Abby, are too nervous to publicly come out. However, by the end of the novel, they have gathered up enough courage to tell everyone about their feelings for eachother… If you’ve read Simon, this should feel very familiar… because it’s basically the same novel! Both Leah and Simon revolve around little more than an LGBTQ+ teen’s difficulty accepting their sexuality, and both novels end with a ‘happily ever after’ coming out scenario. Unfortunately, this means that Leah shares all of its predecessor’s flaws- like Simon, it is a simple, predictable book that uses an LGBTQ+ inclusive romance to attempt to distract from the lack of plot, and the fact that the characters’ only interesting ‘traits’ are their sexualities. I’ll say it again: as far as I’m concerened, a good “coming out” tale is about more than simply the act of coming out, and promotes the view that sexuality doesn’t have to define anyone.
Unfortunately, my problems with this book don’t end with its poor plot- I had major issues with some of the characters’ behaviour too. If you read my review of Simon, you’ll remember that I strongly disliked Leah. I found her cold and moody, and I’m afraid her behaviour doesn’t really change any in Leah. I feel like Albertalli tries to justify Leah’s attitude problem by implying it’s the result of her inner turmoil over her sexuality but, at the end of the day, I don’t think this should excuse the fact that she’s often downright unpleasant.
Similarly, Abby’s treatment of her boyfriend Nick, who she breaks up with shortly before announcing that she’s in a relationship with Leah, is downright cruel. Reading the novel, I felt like Albertalli wanted readers to be so swept up in the happy notion that Abby had gained the confidence to come out, that they would conveniently forget about her treatment of Nick. Whilst the novel’s big “coming out” scene is rather sweet, I don’t think readers should forget the fact that Abby has strong feelings for someone else whilst still in a relationship with Nick, then breaks up with him without telling him the real reason for the split, before going public with her relationship with Leah just two weeks later. The cynic in me can’t help but feel that Albertalli is trying to win over ‘woke’ young readers by including a sickly sweet LGBTQ+ romance, in a novel where the other main relationship is actually somewhat dysfunctional.
So, in summary, I dislike both Albertalli’s portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters, and her portrayal of relationships in general. I think her portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters actually portrays members of the community in a somewhat negative light, as sexuality becomes their defining character trait. I’ve always felt that the most positive representation of the LGBTQ+ community occurs when a character’s sexuality or gender identity is mentioned casually, rather than being made into a big deal. Plus, I feel like Albertalli is targeting young, liberal readers, some of whom may well be members of the LGBTQ+ community themselves, by including a same-sex romance in her novel, but conveniently forgetting the fact that Abby and Nick’s relationship is far from a positive example of what a relationship should be, and could send damaging messages to younger readers.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you want to read a YA novel that includes a raw, genuine portrayal of life as an LGBTQ+ teen, do yourself a favour and read The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky instead.
Did you agree with my opinion? Feel free to let me know in the comments (however, whilst I’m aware that I have touched upon some controversial subjects in this post, I’d like to ask that we keep any discussions civil!).