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.
Based in the same setting that Albertalli created in Simon vs the Homosapien Agenda (and therefore one of my most anticipated reads of the year), Offbeat follows Leah, one of Simon’s best friends who is a self-confessed misfit, and in her own words, the school’s ‘resident fat Slytherin Rory Gilmore’. What can I say? Leah is a girl after my own heart. Well, mostly.
The thing is, Leah is far from your average likable character. She’s moody, rude, sometimes verbally aggressive. She’s quick to fire and judge. She wears her larger than life personality and funky clothes as a coat of armour, but underneath she’s uncertain, self-conscious and despite being sure that she’s bisexual, somehow can’t bring herself to tell any of her friends, even her now openly gay best friend, Simon.
There’s been a lot of conflicting thoughts about this book in the blogosphere, and I can understand why. Leah doesn’t treat people very well at many stages in this book. She’s mean to her friends, she is judgemental and completely unbending when it comes to other people’s mistakes, despite making many of her own. There’s also a scene where Leah kind of polices someone’s sexuality (I won’t go into that here as there’s some amazing, far more informed people who have discussed this far better than I ever could). For these reasons, I can see that Leah would be a tough character for everyone to get on with, and for many, this has impacted their enjoyment of this book.
But for me, Leah was such a raw and vulnerable character and it felt like she actually ached with uncertainty and self-doubt – a fact that is hidden to most by her brilliant sarcasm and awesome pop culture references. I feel like I related to Leah on a very personal level, because she reminded me of at least two of my best friends from secondary school. You could say she’s a hot mess, and so I feel like all the mistakes she made in this novel and the way she treated people were very much part of her character, and also very realistic of a teen who doesn’t have everything figured out – yet. I think, where this book falls down is that it doesn’t take the time to discuss these issues further/call them out down the line to open up a conversation.
Like with Simon, I felt the romance in this novel was very well done. It’s adorable and satisfying, the kind of romance that is all subtle looks and gestures that last a little too long, butterflies-in-the-stomach style. There’s a lot of pent-up tension that makes your belly flip flop and puts a silly smile on your face. Albertalli’s writing shines and I genuinely laughed my way through 80% of this book. However, despite really enjoying the romance, I can’t say that I could get fully behind it because it involved Leah stepping on the heart of one of her best friends, which I can’t forgive in any situation. If only this could have been avoided, I think I would have loved this pairing just as much as the one in the first book!
The secondary characters in this novel are all amazing too, and so fantastically diverse. There are Leah’s band mates, and of course, the original crew of Simon, Nick, Abby and Bram all make an appearance. I just want to bear hug these guys because they make me feel HAPPY. It was great being able to see Oreo-loving Simon all coupled up in the real world, and not just online with a mysterious pen-pal. It was also brilliant that Leah’s mum played such a key part in the novel – she’s totally awesome, and loves Leah’s friends almost as much as Leah does, and her relationship with Leah is a real game of tug of war (the trying on prom dresses scene just squeezed my heart). Albertalli clearly writes YA parents well, because Simon’s parents in book one were also my FAVE.
Overall, Leah on the Offbeat has all the adorable cuteness, heart, and enthusiasm as Simon vs the Homosapien Agenda. While it’s problematic in places and won’t be for everyone, I found it ultimately well-written with great character development which enabled me to overlook some of its flaws. Most importantly, it got me right in the feels with its classic 80s prom teen movie vibes at the finale!
So, while my brain wants to give Leah on the Offbeat 3 stars my heart is saying 4, and when it comes to books, my heart always wins.
Overall Impression: 4/5
Writing Style 5/5
Character Development 4/5
Would I recommend this book? Yes!