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Ah the teen coming of age novel, a genre so twee, so beloved, and so American. Everyone has their favourite coming of age story, mine is Stephen Chbosky’s ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ which has so much more depth than other texts of the genre. I never jumped on board of the ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ craze, I found the characters deeply irritating – teen fiction always has a habit of presenting young people as wise beyond their years with the idiolect of a philosopher. When I read coming of age fiction I want to read something light. I want a quick read, something that’s realistic but also functions as escapism.
‘Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ by Becky Abertalli is very twee, very American, and very conventional. It has received a lot of publicity recently because of its film adaptation Love Simon which I have not seen at time of writing. The novel justifies its existence, and has some originality because it follows a gay protagonist going through a journey that only tends to be represented in culture in serial drama; the coming out storyline.
The novel follows Simon Spier, a middle-class white teenager in Georgia, whose sexuality is hardly intersectional. Abertalli in fact makes a point of Simon being white and middle class, with Simon acknowledging his privilege, and the novel can be seen as a satire of suburban Democrats. The plot follows Simon emailing another closeted teen known only as Blue, with their email exchanges being discovered, leading to Simon being blackmailed by another student. I was pleased that the blackmailing plot didn’t go where I thought it would, and I was surprised by the revelation of Blue’s identity which is the main mystery underpinning the novel.
The characters are well realised, Simon’s friends are very annoying, but this is made up for by how likeable Simon is as a narrator. Abertalli slips into the voice of a modern-day teenager very well, the voice always feels realistic. The novel is constructed with chapters following Simon’s first-person narrative and every other chapter is a copy of Simon and Blue’s emails. I actually enjoyed reading their email correspondence more than the narrative as it was so compelling.
In some areas, the novel feels too tame, not really engaging with homophobia or gay life in a red state. But I think this is the point. This is not meant to be a novel about a gay teenager. It is a novel about teenagers that happens to focus on a gay character. The fact that Simon doesn’t receive much hate for coming out only makes the novel more original and enjoyable, as other LGBT storylines typically focus on rejection or AIDS. Abertalli’s novel instead presents homosexuality as no big deal amongst teenagers, which hopefully reflects the true state of the western world.
The book is not the literary tour de force of ‘Call Me By Your Name’, which is one of the most beautiful books ever written. It does not share Aciman’s novel’s eroticism or theme of sexual maturity. ‘Simon’ is less about desire and more about high school crushes. In this case it is a less sophisticated work but this is perhaps the point. It takes the conventions of the coming of age novel and focuses them around a gay character. This novel is about telling an old story but with new representation we haven’t seen before. This book is not only our book of the month because it is an enjoyable and fun read but because it is an important text in terms of LGBT representation, and also features strong BAME representation. Without this book, there wouldn’t currently be the first major studio release with an LGBT main character in cinemas. Read Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda before you see the film.