In almost every respect Simon Spier is your typical American 16 year old.
He’s popular but not too popular, dabbles in drama productions at school where he sits with a motley array of old friends, jocks and new arrivals at lunch, has lifelong friends in Nick and Leah, a special new friend in Abby, and a close knit family who are famed for making everything in their collective lives a “big deal”.
There’s one big thing that sets him apart though from pretty much everyone else around him – he is gay – and it’s this Otherness, this sense of not being a part of the pack in every respect that drives the delightfully insightful, wickedly funny and heartfelt book, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli.
Simon isn’t ashamed of being gay or necessarily afraid of announcing it to the world but he is also all-too-painfully aware that even in our more enlightened times, that being different is not always greeted with open arms.
And, of course, that it will change everything.
“People really are like house with vast rooms and tiny windows. And maybe it’s a good thing, the way we never stop surprising each other.”
For much of the book, until his hand is forced by a misguided friend, Martin, who comes to bitterly regret his actions, Simon’s shares his secret with only one person, a young man he only knows as Blue, whose refusal to share his true identity – the two young men go to the same school in Shady Creek, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia – defines their email-only relationship.
Though its form becomes frustrating to Simon as the book progresses, with his requests for mobile numbers and face-to-face meetings politely and regretfully declined, their email-centric conversations grows their shared intimacy in a way that allows both of them to convey the uniqueness of being gay in a mostly heteronormative world in a way that is poignant, meaningful and sweetly funny, punctuated by sage wisdom on the best way to eat Oreo cookies.
The connection shared by Simon and Blue, which grows from playful banter and trivia-sharing to a growing sense of emotional and sexual attraction – this is despite neither person having set eyes on the other in any way, shape or form – is the central axis on which this remarkable book pivots, and through which it explores what it is like to be Other when you are, to all intents and purposes, part of the flock.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, despite its weighty emotional and existential explorations, is a playfully accessible book for the most part.
It acknowledges in many ways that what many might regard as Other, is anything but for the person who is defined by that state of being, but it does so in a way that grants those on the outside looking in, which is pretty much everyone else in Simon’s life bar Blue, a chance to understand that what they see is different is not different after all.
Because Simon, and remains even after he is forced to come out to the world, every bit as much a normal young man as anyone else and Albertalli reinforces this message again and again without being in the least bit heavy handed or obnoxiously polemic.
Sure Simon’s Otherness is given its due since it is very much who he is, and at no point does Albertalli attempt to equate it with the herteronormative world around him, but she makes it clear in ways big and small that the differences people in wider society fear as not so different overall.
“But I’m tired of coming out. All I ever do is come out. I try not to change, but I keep changing, in all these tiny ways. I get a girlfriend. I have a beer. And every freaking time, I have to reintroduce myself to the universe all over again.”
The delivery of this all-important message is the key, much of it resting on Simon’s delightful bright and vervy sense of humour that even in the worst of circumstances seems to grant him the sort of perspective and ability to cope with things that would elude many other people.
That’s not to say he isn’t deeply affected the events of the book, good and bad, but he is able to rise above much of it, bolstered by a loving family, a steadfast group of friends and the friendship and love of Blue who, you’ll be glad to know, he comes to meet in the much-desired face-to-face setting.
The genius of Albertalli’s writing is that she gives perfect vent to what it is like to be Other in the midst of a world hellbent of squishing all the square pegs of the world into socially-conforming roundholes.
Yes, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, exists in somewhat of an idealised setting but it never once shies away from admitting to the difficulties that can await someone who doesn’t fit into society’s conventional roles.
At the same time, it beautifully conveys in ways both hilariously funny and deeply meaningful, all underpinned by a huge amount of heart, that being different is simply another way to be, that who you are is worthwhile and valuable regardless of the form it takes.
So perfectly written are the characters and the setting, and the all-important email exchanges between Simon and Blue that leaving their world, one which Otherness is yes affirmed as different but not in the way that it is often conveyed by the more small-minded among us, is a wrench.
You want to stay with these people and continue their remarkable journeys and see where exploring a world beyond conventional normal can take them … and you.
Suffice to say though in the 300 or pages of this remarkably affecting book that you come to understand with power and conviction, and an increasing urge to scarf down Oreos in every form imaginable, that all those cliched statements about love being love, and who you are as a person being valuable no matter the form it takes, are richly and wholly true and that embracing the reality of that won’t just do the Simons of the world a power of a good but everyone around them, all of them could benefit from acknowledging that normal is simply a thousand shades of different.