A book very much “on” beat: Review of Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

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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.

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‘Imagine going about your day knowing someone’s carrying you in their mind. That has to be the best part of being in love- the feeling of having a home in some else’s brain.’

Leah on the Offbeat was not a book I was anticipating at all, for a number of reasons: 1. Because the main character is bisexual and the author isn’t and I didn’t trust her; 2. I didn’t enjoy The Upside of Unrequited at all and was worried this book would be the same; 3. As it works as a semi-sequel to Simon VS the Homo sapiens Agenda, I didn’t think this book would live up to Simon’s reputation.

I worried for nothing.

Leah on the Offbeat is the f/f YA romance I’ve been wanting to read for years: it’s fluffy, but doesn’t shy away from the hard topics; it’s romantic, but it places meaning on the importance of friendship too; and it’s diverse, with a wide range of POC characters and a fat MC.

I just loved Leah – I really saw a lot of myself in her when I was a teen in high school. She’s unapologetically bisexual (has known since she was 11!) and doesn’t care about your opinion on her body type. She’s very abrasive, a little awkward at times, anxious and worried about her future — all around, she’s a typical teenager.

‘“I can’t help it. I’m a Slytherin.”
And I’m the worst kind of Slytherin. I’m the kind who’s so stupidly in love with a Gryffindor, she can’t even function. I’m the Draco from some shitty Drarry fic that the author abandoned after four chapters.’

I was a little surprised at the direction the romance took, but then again, it had been so long since I’d read Simon VS that I had forgotten how much chemistry Leah and a certain someone had. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so I won’t say the name of the girl Leah crushes on, but I do want to reiterate that it’s a f/f romance. That’s really important because so few f/f books are hyped in the book community, let alone make the NYT bestseller list! 

I did find the plot to be a little slow, because nothing much actually happens in the book. There’s no driving force of the book, which was a massive problem I found in The Upside of Unrequited – there’s nothing to keep me too invested in the plot, aside from the romance drama. In Simon, we have the blackmail storyline, the lead-up to the school play, his emails with Blue, and figuring out how to come out to his family. In Leah, it’s pretty much Leah looking at colleges, even though she knows which one she’s going to, fighting with a friend due to a very racist remark, her trying to choose between a girl and a guy (and even then we know she doesn’t really like the guy) and feeling guilty for going after a friend’s ex.

For me, this is a problem Albertalli has had in the past two books – the lack of plot. It’s something an editor really needs to take a look at, because if there’s no plot, what am I even here for? Ultimately, I think what saved this novel is the romance between Leah and the girl, who many people have been shipping for the past few years. I personally think if Leah didn’t get into a relationship with this person, and the love interest was someone else entirely, the reaction to this book would have been different. I’m actually guilty of this because all I cared about was Leah and the girl. Someone on GR called this book ‘fanfiction of Simon VS the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ and I kind of agree. I also don’t care because it was still genuinely enjoyable.

 — Bisexual representation —

I do want to touch on a topic that was discussed briefly in the YA book community, primarily on Twitter, and that’s the representation of bisexuality in this book. Some bi readers — and some who weren’t bi — were hurt by Leah’s frustration at the girl she liked claiming that she was ‘low-key bi’. This was the interaction:

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The girl ends the conversation claiming, ‘It’s a real label for me’, but Leah never apologises for “policing” another person’s sexuality, which, as I mentioned, many people were hurt by. Please see Marianne’s eloquent and valid review about this. As a fellow bi reader, I 100% understand the issue Marianne and many other readers found with this book, but I would also like to offer my own opinion.

I have had the privilege of figuring out my sexuality from quite a young age – 14 – so I can’t even begin to comprehend how difficult it must be for someone to discover their identity in their late teens or adulthood. However, I do very much understand the frustration bi people have when someone claims to be ‘a little bit bi’. As a bisexual person, I have struggled to have my sexuality taken seriously by queer and straight people alike. I have been told, ‘You’re not bi, you’re gay’ or, ‘You’re not bi, you’re straight’. The word ‘low-key’ brings to mind the phrase ‘on the down low’ — as in, something that should be kept as a secret, or hidden. And then that makes me feel like there’s something shameful in being bisexual.

‘But I know what it’s like to be not good enough, in some bone-deep fundamental way.’

In this scene, I don’t necessarily think Leah is policing her crush’s sexuality. I think her response is one of frustration, a very natural frustration that many bi – and perhaps other queer people – experience. That knee-jerk reaction of ‘Hey! What’s wrong with my sexuality?!’ In a sense, it’s a form of self-defence: Leah trying to protect herself. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me my sexuality isn’t real, and then I’d hear of someone coming out as heteroflexible (I know a person who identifies as this) and think to myself, ‘And they say my sexuality is made up!’ That’s wrong of me. But, at the end of the day, I’m only human and I’m trying to learn from my mistakes and better myself — to make myself more open to sexualities I don’t necessarily understand.

This is how Albertalli could have deconstructed this complex feeling/scene: by having Leah later apologising to the girl, and learning from her mistake. Because, at the end of the day, there’s really nothing wrong with the way the girl labels herself as ‘low-key bi’. If that label is comfortable for you, then that’s all that matters! But Leah doesn’t end up apologising to the girl, and this scene is kind of shoved under the rug, which isn’t right. And that ended up hurting a lot of people.

But I do think people need to stop expecting absolute perfection from YA novels in regard to diversity. It’s normal to be upset when you think someone is erasing your sexuality — which I think both Leah and the girl were feeling: Leah assumed the girl was erasing her sexuality by claiming to be ‘just a little bit bi’ and the girl assumed Leah was erasing her slow understanding of her identity. I think the important thing to remember is that when it comes to diverse novels, there will always be a difference of opinion because no one person’s experience as a member of a marginalisation is the same as another’s.

‘If Katie Leung sweetly rejecting Daniel Radcliffe in a Scottish accent wasn’t your sexual awakening, I don’t even want to know you.’

So, how do non-bi people go about interacting with this scene? The answer: you don’t. This scene isn’t something non-bi people need to concern themselves with, because it is a feeling that only bi people can understand. Instead, non-bi people can boost bi people’s voices by retweeting and sharing our reviews of this book, and our opinions of this scene. I completely understand where Marianne is coming from and I agree with her for the most part: this scene wasn’t good, and it could have been “saved” by Leah just apologising. But, because I see so much of myself in Leah, I don’t necessarily think she’s policing another bi girl’s sexuality, but attempting to protect herself.

What does a non-bi person do in this situation when two bi people (slightly) disagree with each other? Well, you retweet both of us! (In fact, I even retweeted Marianne’s link to her review, even though I didn’t agree with some parts.) Because, as I mentioned, no one person represents the entirety of a marginalisation. But I want to state that please don’t feel bad about liking this book or disliking it, and you don’t have to change your rating/personal opinion about it based on what we say (which I’ve seen some people do). This is a complex issue that doesn’t just have one simple answer. The best thing for you to do is just show support (no hate, which I’ve seen people do to Marianne and that’s horrible) and understand that we bi people comprehend a little more about this situation than others.

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Ultimately, I adored Leah on the Offbeat. It was just enjoyable. Despite the lack of focus and plot, the writing very much engaged me from beginning to end, and I flew through the story. The romance was sweet, but they had their fair share of ups and downs, and it was also good to see Simon and Blue (don’t want to say his real name in case people haven’t read it yet!) again.

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4.5 stars
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6 thoughts on “A book very much “on” beat: Review of Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

  1. thisisoneforthebooks says:

    I love how you talked about the bisexual representation in this book and some of the things being said in the book community about that one scene where Leah gets super angry at the girl. I agree that Leah was acting out of anger and self defense, but I too found it really odd how Leah didn’t apologize after; she actually really hurt her feelings and the story never came back to that and addressed it after which I was waiting for!

    Liked by 1 person

    • thebookcorps says:

      Hey!! Thanks for the comment! Yes, I was waiting for that too! Apologising to the girl you like for a shitty comment should be a natural response, so I don’t get why the author didn’t put it in!

      Liked by 1 person

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