Most YA books have some kind of romantic element, even when they cannot (even by the most creative marketing executive) be considered part of a genre of 'romantic fiction'. And this is hardly surprising. The YA genre, after all, is focused on people 'growing up' and finding themselves and a vital part of that process involves discovering one's sexual identity. Becky Albertali's novel 'Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda' addresses that topic head-on and, what is even more wonderful, it does so in a warm and witty way that has you alternately giggling and shedding a poignant tear.
Simon, our protagonist, is gay. The year before the novel begins he found an anonymous post on his high school Internet message board from a fellow student (pseudonym Blue) asking for other gay students to get in touch by email. At the beginning of the novel Simon and Blue have been corresponding for several months and have clearly become quite close. Yet neither Simon nor Blue are 'out' and we watch them move closer to that point as the novel progresses. Indeed, this part of the story is arguably a lot more interesting than the explicit mystery, ostensibly driving the plot, about who 'Blue' really is. Inevitably, you will find other reviewers claiming that they 'guessed' his identity from too early on in the plot to make this latter aspect of the book interesting. Although I wouldn't insult my readers' intelligence by making that kind of claim, it is true to say that the mystery element is very much secondary to the book. The main joy it brings is the way we get to watch from a uniquely privileged position as the couple discover both each other and themselves.
There are so many things about this book that make me want to recommend it to everyone I know (not just those who are into YA). In the first place, it is an extremely well-written book with a wonderfully engaging and entertaining narrative voice. The story that voice tells is gripping and heart-warming and joyful. It is the sort of story that reminds you why it is good to be alive and helps you to believe that the world is an essentially good place which will eventually turn out to be alright. It is a story about love emerging in the anonymity of email correspondence; love that forms based on someone's writing style and personality. As such, it forms a wonderful antidote to the number of romances where love is supposedly created by the indefinable 'allure' of one or both of the parties (Fifty Shades, for instance). I'm not, of course, denying that physical attraction has a huge role to play in romantic relationships. I'm simply suggesting that such attraction might be more flexible than those of the 'indescribable power' school of romantic thought would deem possible. Part of the reason for this book's deep appeal for me lies precisely in its portrayal of a relationship that strikes me as intensely real and true and not based on some pseudo-supernatural belief in pheromones.
Finally, of course, it is a book about gay teenagers. As a hugely sympathetic and careful exploration of how and why being gay affects the process of growing up and experiencing relationships this is a hugely important novel. Even without all of its other virtues to recommend it, this would still make it a must-read. Yet it is here that I find myself a bit ambivalent. One of the themes that is explicitly discussed by Simon throughout his story is the differences faced by gay teenagers in the development and expression of their sexuality. In particular, the ritual whereby a gay person must explicitly 'come out' to his or her family and social circle is highlighted as slightly absurd: why, muses Simon, shouldn't straight people have to do this too? This is a deeply profound and – I feel – important point. The biggest impression left upon me by the novel was the way in which the experience of first love as a teenager can be said to be universal and how much damage we can do by seeking to segregate 'gay' and 'straight' lifestyles. The 'homo-sapiens agenda' of the title is about more than merely banishing discrimination and prejudice but about really recognising the common humanity which we all share. In an age which could be said to be overly focused on diversity and difference this is an important message. Hence the ambivalence. For, as long as we keep getting excited about novels merely because they tell 'gay stories', this message has not been heard. This book is fun, brilliant and wonderful and you must read it. Yet I long for the day when it doesn't have to be written.