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 mum, and her life is decidedly less privileged. And even though her mum 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 realises she might love one of them more than she ever intended.
I went and saw Daniel Sloss at the Sydney Comedy Festival on Saturday night, and as I had some time to kill before the show, I stopped in at Better Read Than Dead and found this gem on the shelves. All sources point to its official publication date being 30 April, although the bookseller working said it had been out for a week (we were discussing how it felt like a book that was being published later in the year). I liked Leah on the Offbeat much more than The Upside of Unrequited, although I wasn’t quite as enamoured with it as I was with Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda; I think because Leah is a sharper-edged, more polarising character than Simon.
“I’m basically your resident fat Slytherin Rory Gilmore.”
Leah is a delight to read. She’s brash and unashamedly herself – she knows who she is, even if she doesn’t want to share every aspect of who she is with those around her. Albertalli is great at dialogue, characterisation, and building relationships and all of these elements really shine in Leah on the Offbeat. She doesn’t define herself by a romantic relationship, she doesn’t feel insecure about herself because she’s overweight, and she strives for perfection in all that she does. It was eye-opening to ‘watch’ Leah put herself down because her drumming/artwork wasn’t technically perfect. She really is her own worst enemy and is abrasive with herself as she is with other people. It hurt to see Leah acutely aware of the fact that she and her mother are poor and so she therefore can’t afford the luxuries that her friends don’t even think about.
“I’m the Draco from some shitty Drarry fic that the author abandoned after four chapters.”
Albertalli never intended for Leah or her love interest to be bisexual, that was a non-canon ship that was popular in fan fiction (the dedication of the book reads ‘for the readers who knew something was up, even when I didn’t’) and eventually turned into a book… and it feels that way. Other reviewers have commented that Albertalli basically committed character assassination and let fans’ wishes drive the story. I can’t really comment on it because I haven’t reread Simon and can’t say for sure how the characters have changed to make this book work. However, I can say that Leah doesn’t really say anything that Simon didn’t, and narratively, it’s just too similar. Structurally, Simon is the stronger book – while Simon had conflict because of Martin, and kept the reader hooked because of the mystery surrounding Blue, Leah only really had any conflict because of… Leah? It’s hard to review this book without giving away the ending because the plot is simply Leah and her love interest realising that they’re bisexual. Leah had a problem with her love interest coming out as ‘lowkey bi’… so that threw a spanner in the works. It was very frustrating to feel like the story was just going around in circles because Leah doesn’t look at anything from anyone else’s point of view.
Leah on the Offbeat is a feel-good story (and a slew of pop culture references) that will warm your heart while still tackling serious issues like racism and sexuality. Albertalli is a skilled YA author and while Leah is not as strong as her debut novel, I do highly recommend it.