Even if you haven’t read much Young Adult lit, you’ve already read this story. If you have read a lot of YA, you’ve read this story many times. This isn’t going to be the first book you’ve read about a nerdy high-schooler with an ill-advised crush on a taken classmate. If you go in expecting a ground-breaking, inventive plot, you’ll be disappointed.
But I can’t imagine reading Leah on the Offbeat and feeling anything like disappointment.
There’s a reason we keep returning to these same love stories over and over again, cringing and swooning at all the right moments. There’s a reason we cheer at the same climatic prom-night kisses, even when we saw them coming from the first page.
And there’s also a reason, when good authors return to these well-trodden tropes, they make some changes.
Leah Burke isn’t a generic, off-the-rack nerd. Her internal monologue captures a very particular brand of awkwardness, one born of social anxiety, Tumblr-cultivated geekery, and John-Greenish unironic enthusiasm. It would be easy to think that Leah is relatable simply because she reads Drarry fanfiction, makes effortless Hamilton references, and calls people cinnamon rolls. Becky Albertalli understands, however, that there is more to building this kind of character than a checklist of interests and slang. It’s a delight to be in Leah’s head, where her joyful, hyperbolic affection for her friends captures all the best things about this generation of geeks.
This isn’t the first time I’ve read a female character think understanding who she’s attracted to would be easier if she had a penis. This is the first time I’ve read a character say “people with penises” (when that’s what she meant) and not “men.” This isn’t the first time I’ve read a female character ruminate on her appearance and weight. This is the first time I’ve read a character self-identify matter-of-factly as “fat.” This isn’t the first time I’ve read a character a little like this, but it is the first time I’ve read this character.
As with Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda before it, Leah on the Offbeat performs a high-wire act of LGBT representation, portraying a bisexual character for whom sexual orientation is key to her story but not the entirety of her identity. This is a story of same-sex romance, one that is complicated by the burden of coming out and the fear of being a straight girl’s “experimentation.” It is also simply a romance, built on longing glances and second-guessing and sweet teenage affection. Again, Albertalli is not seeking to write “The Bisexual Story,” but this story of this girl at this moment in time. It is with care and empathy and deep understanding that Albertalli digs into the particulars, not the generalities.
When a story is handled with as much love and respect as this one, it doesn’t matter that I know the plot beats by heart. I’ll read it all over again, because it is different, it is something I’ve never seen before. And yes, I’ll read it because it’s also just the same. I’ll read that same love story, because it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen two geeky little teenagers fall in love, I want it again. It’s a love story, and those are called “timeless” for a reason.