Review: Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli
Genre: YA contemporary
Publisher: Balzer & Bray
Publication date: April 24, 2018
Leah Burke—girl-band drummer, master of deadpan, and Simon Spier’s best friend from the award-winning Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda—takes center stage in this novel of first love and senior-year angst.
When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually on beat—but real life isn’t always so rhythmic. An anomaly in her friend group, she’s the only child of a young, single mom, and her life is decidedly less privileged. She loves to draw but is too self-conscious to show it. And even though her mom knows she’s bisexual, she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends—not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.
So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture in unexpected ways. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high. It’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting—especially when she realizes she might love one of them more than she ever intended.
About a year ago, I read Becky Albertalli’s first two books: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda and The Upside of Unrequited, and I really enjoyed them–especially Simon, because his anxieties over coming out were very relatable to me personally. Sadly, my plans to see Love, Simon with friends this spring fell through (darn schoolwork!), but I’m sure I’ll see it soon. So as school wound down this year, it seemed only fitting to read her new release, Leah on the Offbeat. (And somehow no one had checked it out from my library’s Libby yet!)
Leah is a sequel of Simon of sorts, taking place during their next and final year of high school. It’s from Simon’s friend Leah’s perspective, and she’s bi but hasn’t come out to any of her friends yet, even though she’s known since she was eleven. She’s also still a drummer in her band, outspoken, and body-positive. All of this is great. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed.
First of all: this was difficult for me to read personally. This isn’t a criticism of the writing itself…in fact, it might be a compliment. The senior year of high school feelings of high school were very on-point, but it reminded me of my own intense feelings from that time, especially when the story dealt with break-ups, college anxieties, and prom. (Ugh, prom. But if Leah taught me anything, it’s that promposals maybe are okay if they’re not as overwhelmingly heteronormative as the rest of prom is?) Leah’s own anxiety was absolutely on point, and I related to that; it was just difficult to read. I really loved her commentary on how expensive college visits/applications/etc were and how she felt left out because she was going to a state school, and how she didn’t want a public promposal because of her anxiety. And that prom scene with the realization that it’s all going to be over soon? Yup. Real.
It’s been a while since I’ve read Simon, so I don’t think I can comment too much on the continuity of the characters between that and this, but I do have some thoughts. Simon and Bram were adorable and had relatable anxieties and were probably my favorite part. Morgan and Anna had a tough and important storyline to play with Leah (“what if your best friends since middle school are not the people you still want to hang out with because they have a tendency to be racist/forgive racist comments easily?”), but I barely remembered them from the first book and felt like I was missing something. I really wish the band had gotten more time, and that was what I thought from the title, and mostly I wish Taylor had been more fleshed out. Nick seems to be who many are disappointed about, but my main concern with him is how he was a loose end kind of tossed away at the end. Seriously, is he okay?? He seems to be heading into self-destructive behavior and alcohol usage and I’m just really worried as someone who went through a big break-up around that time, too. I understand not everything is tied up by the end of high school, but Leah’s “three months later” email to Simon didn’t seem to indicate they were taking the issue seriously as his friends.
Some parts definitely felt like fanfiction, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s nice commentary to see two female characters from the original fall for each other like many had hoped, as there had been hints in Simon. I was more ambivalent about it because I think I just have a limit for shipping and romcom tropes, personally. But…how this was approached was frustrating to me at the least.
THIS IS WHERE WE HEAD INTO SPOILER TERRITORY. HEADS UP.
So…all the Leah/Abby interactions were definitely cute and swoony, and while they only just begin their relationship at the end, I just felt like there was something missing there…mostly, more of an emotional connection. There were opportunities for it, but Leah kept avoiding it in a very frustrating and almost hurtful way.
Abby tries to express the fact that she has wanted to kiss her for a year and a half and is questioning her sexuality, but Leah shuts down and isn’t supportive of this. This makes sense initially, as she’s hurt because her first kiss has possibly been “stolen” by a straight girl, and it’s all consistent with Leah’s brash personality. THEN Abby comes out to her as “lowkey bi” after discussing this with her cousins (from Upside!) and Leah shuts her down, insisting this isn’t a real thing. Which is false, because it’s a spectrum…surely Leah is on Tumblr enough to know about the Kinsey scale and such. And while painful to read, this scene is still consistent with Leah’s character and ratchets up the tension.
But…this never gets addressed. At the end Leah just accepts that their feelings are mutual, and Abby never explicitly comes out and they never have an opportunity to discuss their sexuality, which would have been interesting and honestly a discussion that should be had after Leah’s previous behavior. Because Leah just never apologizes!! That’s just it!! And as a result, their conflict just doesn’t feel resolved but rather brushed aside, kind of allowing Leah’s behavior.
END OF SPOILERY SECTION
Ultimately, while Leah on the Offbeat was as enjoyable to read as any Albertalli book and depicted emotions well, the central love story left many loose ends and issues not addressed, leaving the conflict feeling unresolved in a troublesome way to me.
PSA: THERE IS A PREVIEW OF WHAT IF IT’S US IN THE BACK OF THE BOOK. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. IT IS ADORABLE.