Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I read young adult, or YA, for a lot of reasons. As I’ve said before, I read it to keep me young, or at least to keep me connected to the ideas and feelings of younger adults. It’s natural, as we grow older, to lose touch with those perspectives, especially as the world around us changes. Reading YA inoculates me, to some extent, against that. Moreover, YA novels often display so much courage. By this I don’t necessarily mean the writing itself is courageous (though that could certainly be the case). This is what I felt when reading Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and I will explain why in a bit.
Becky Albertalli delivers a story that might be described as “sweet”, as a romance or rom-com or whatever you might call it. The eponymous Simon is a gay teenager who isn’t out to anyone, not even his friends or family, except for a fellow gay teen at the same high school—but they only communicate through anonymous email exchanges. When a peer accidentally stumbles upon this exchange—good op-sec means not leaving yourself logged into your anonymous accounts on a school library computer, you know—he blackmails Simon, threatening to reveal Simon’s sexuality unless Simon arranges for him to have a shot at one of Simon’s close friends, Abby. Yet while this blackmail plot runs throughout the book and forms a significant part of the story, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda is much more than that. It’s much more than a coming out story, or even a coming-of-age story. It’s about the strengths and tribulations of friendship, the angst of understandings, and ultimately, the courage to seize happiness in the face of the unknown.
I mean, it’s right there in the title: “vs the Homo sapiens agenda”. This is a play on the idea of the so-called “gay agenda” often floated as a straw man by conservative groups, which itself is a specific case of a more general tactic whereby marginalized people are accused of wielding out-sized amounts of power in some kind of shadowy conspiracy to silence privileged people. Albertalli turns this idea around on itself, pointing out in the process that the very people who rail against the “gay agenda” claim seldom acknowledge their own agenda—because, for a long time in our history, their agenda was (and to some extent still is) the mainstream agenda of our society. The Homo sapiens agenda, or to get more technical, the allocisheteronormative white supremacist patriarchal agenda (yeah, that’s a mouthful, glad that wasn’t the title) burdens us with assumptions about identity and behaviour: cis, straight, white, male are the defaults in society. You are assumed to be these things until otherwise—and if it turns out you aren’t one of those things, we reserve the right to judge you, even to the point of harming you, for having the audacity to be other.
Albertalli explores the Homo sapiens agenda on several levels, from the most mundane or simplest parts to the deepest and most poignant areas of our lives. Sometimes it’s the little things that are the best. For example, even Simon, who is gay, has to check himself a couple of times when he assumes that someone is straight or white just because these are the defaults that even he has internalized about his society. This is a good reminder of how experiencing a type of oppression doesn’t free you from assumptions and how these assumptions are themselves baked into our lives and our language.
On a deeper level, I love how Albertalli uses Simon’s ambivalence about coming out to help drive the story without problematizing being gay. That is, Simon still experiences a lot of trepidation about coming out—sadly, this is still realistic and the norm in our society, so it’s a natural thing to depict on the page. Yet at no point in Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda does anyone close to Simon ever actually shame him, judge him, or remotely make a negative comment about his sexuality. Even Martin, the blackmailer, makes it clear to Simon he doesn’t actually care about Simon’s sexuality; he’s exploiting the fact that other people might care, or at least that Simon might care that other people might care. (To be clear, I’m not here to excuse Martin’s actions at all—rather, I want to point out that Martin isn’t motivated by hatred for Simon’s sexuality, just by pure assholery.) And when some people bully or mock Simon after he is forcibly outed, Albertalli has other characters—students and teachers—rally to his defence.
In other words, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda takes the approach of depicting some of the serious issues that—in this particular case—a gay teenager might struggle with, but presents us with a possible world that is recognizable yet also better. There are problems and conflicts and struggles but there is also support and acceptance and hope.
Still, as much as a gay reader might identify with Simon, this is not just a book for gay teens. People who aren’t gay should still read this book—because reading about characters whose identities are not like your own is one way to work against different types of normativity that skew our perspectives.
TIME decided to run an article about the movie based on this book asking if today’s teens “need” a groundbreaking gay movie. Well, if a major media site feels the need to run a garbage headline like that, then the answer must still be yes. The author essentially takes aim at what I identified above, claiming that so many gay teens in our world are already getting the love and support Simon receives in this book, so why do we need this movie? I guess that’s why we stopped making movies about straight couples receiving love and support from their families, right? (Seriously, that whole article is a trashfire.)
Like, seriously, we’ll know we don’t “need” a groundbreaking gay movie anymore when we stop talking about “gay movies” as if they are “groundbreaking”. When gay people in relationships, out of relationships, whatever are just present across all media and all genres and have stories about being gay and stories about coming out and stories that have nothing to do whatsoever with sexuality or romance. Until that happens, until non-straight sexual orientations are no longer “the other”, we have so much work to do.
To that end, let’s move on from discussing Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda as a “gay book” and examine all the other ways in which I loved it!
There is so much friendship in this book. Obviously the love story between Simon/Blue is important, but as an aromantic and asexual person, this is my jam. Watching Simon interact with his friends, navigate coming out to them, deal with how the blackmail affects his relationship with Abby, dealing with Leah’s jealousy … it’s just beautiful.
And this is what I mean about YA books having such courage sometimes. Here we are: Simon has got his guy; Albertalli could have ended things there with a happily-ever-after. Instead, she deals with this loose thread, this tension between Simon and Leah that has boiled over into outright avoidance on the latter’s part. Simon basically forces a confrontation, and it’s messy and uncomfortable. So here we are, a YA book portraying how, sometimes, you and your best friend are going to reach an impasse. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Sometimes friendship has moments of pain and anguish every bit as poignant as romance.
I think about this a lot lately. Not so much pain and anguish—we aren’t there yet—but obviously, by the ripe old age of 28, I’ve had my share of close friendships change, attenuate, strengthen or weaken as the months and years elapse. In the past 8 months, I’ve become inexplicably, abruptly close to one brand new friend in particular, so rather like Abby she has assumed a role of closeness and confidence in my circle that neither of us could have predicted. And as someone whose social circle has always been circumscribed and who counts his “close” friends on a single hand, this has been disruptive—wonderful, head-over-heels delirious happiness wonderful, but also a big change.
So it was really nice and comforting for, kind of out of nowhere, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda to remind me that this is what happens. Life is messy. As we grow and change, so to will our friendships. Being best friends doesn’t always mean your relationship will be easy or free of drama. Sometimes, having that tough Real Talk™ is what you need, even if it’s uncomfortable. So, major kudos to Albertalli for including this subplot.
There’s also the antithesis of friendship in this book. Albertalli allows Martin to get one last word in, in the form of an apology email to Simon. I like this. I like that Albertalli humanizes Martin rather than turning him into some kind of stock villain. Earlier, when Martin tries to apologize in person, Simon rejects the apology and tells Martin he just doesn’t want to see Martin around—which is a totally valid reaction. And I love how the book portrays the way that Martin’s callous, treacherous actions have created this rift, and how no amount of words can heal that. It sounds, from the way Martin writes, that he is genuinely contrite, and maybe this will make him grow into a better human being. But Albertalli manages to do that without excusing his actions or providing him with an iota of redemption in Simon’s eyes.
Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a lot of things. It is laugh-out-loud funny. It is compassionate and heartwarming. It features romance, friendship, family. It has moments of angst and moments of deepest satisfaction. It’s a feel-good book because of all the feels. Read it because it’s a gay book. Read it because it’s a romance. Read it because it’s about high school. Read it because it’s YA. There’s so many reasons to read it, because in the end, this is a complex novel that constantly invites you to challenge yourself and your assumptions.