Saturday, April 28, 2018

Book Review: "Leah on the Offbeat" by Becky Albertalli

When I fall in love with a book's characters, I'm often sad when the book ends, because I want to spend more time with them, and I feel like I've become engrossed in their lives in some small way. So when a sequel comes along, I'm tremendously excited, and of course, I hope it is worthy of the original book.

I absolutely loved Becky Albertalli's Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (see my review), and it was one of my favorite books of 2015. Seeing the movie adaptation, Love, Simon, made me fall in love with those characters once again, so when I heard Albertalli had a sequel coming out, I marked the publication date on my calendar, and bought the book at 12:00 a.m. the day it came out.

Leah on the Offbeat picks up shortly after its predecessor ended, but this book focuses on Leah, Simon Spier's best friend. She projects a tough exterior but on the inside, she's struggling. She's the only one of her immediate circle of friends not to be part of a couple. She's a talented drummer and artist, but she never seems to have enough confidence in her abilities or believe people will think she's talented. And as the child of a single mom, they're always struggling financially, so she doesn't have the freedom her friends do.

Leah's biggest struggle is with herself. Only her mother knows she's bisexual—she hasn't even told Simon, and he's openly gay. She has kept a close friend at a distance because her feelings were getting muddled somewhere between friendship and a serious crush, but her friend doesn't understand Leah's coldness. But if Leah admits her feelings she knows she'll only get hurt, and she could destroy their circle of friends as well.

"But it sucks when life moves along without you. Sometimes I feel left out even when life's moving along with me."

As senior year of high school heads toward its conclusion, tensions are running high as people decide what college to attend (or have decisions made for them) and what that will mean for their relationships. Prom, too, is upping the drama factor, and although Leah would rather just be alone rather than watch the object of her affection dance the night away with her boyfriend, she accepts the invitation of a friend, even though she knows it may be setting up unrealistic expectations for him.

When a relationship is ended, Leah has to decide what to do. Does she finally speak about her feelings and risk it all, or does she just let life—and possible love—pass her by again in an effort to protect everyone? As she keeps getting mixed signals from the one person she wants to be with, she feels utterly out of tune, and it hurts.

"It's like when a song changes key, or starts on the offbeat, or shifts its meter halfway through. It's that hiccup you get in your chest. That tiny huh moment. Like maybe something's kind of wrong. Or maybe something's about to change."

I just love the way Albertalli tells a story, and I love the emotions and heart with which she imbues her characters. Of course as I was reading the entire book, I kept seeing the faces of the actors who played them in Love, Simon, but I didn't find it distracting. I realized just how much I missed Leah, Simon, Abby, Nick, Garrett, Bram, even Martin.

I definitely enjoyed this book but I really struggled at times to feel sympathy for Leah. I realize how much emotional turmoil she was dealing with in terms of her bisexuality and feeling left out, but she really made herself unlikable a lot of the time in the way she treated her friends, her mother, nearly everyone. That being said, I recognized some of her feelings, so it didn't detract from devouring this book.

I also felt a little cheated that Albertalli chose to skip the resolution of one major plot point and just move past it, telling rather than showing what happened afterward. While I understand that perhaps the drama might have dragged down the book, I just didn't believe everyone would have accepted things so positively immediately.

Regardless of those criticisms, this was a tremendously enjoyable and lovable book, and while it didn't quite rise to the level of its predecessor (which is a ridiculously high bar), if you loved her first book and/or The Upside of Unrequited, definitely read this. (But if you haven't read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, or seen the movie, read that book first.)

Now I can't wait until the fall, when a book co-written by Albertalli and Adam Silvera comes out. So much anticipation!!

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