Thursday, February 16, 2012
Book Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
When I picked up this book my first thought, honestly, was - ouch, it must stink to be a guy writing about a girl dying of cancer in the year 2012 if your name is not John Green. Without a doubt John Green is getting tons of accolades (and deservedly so) for his work The Fault in Our Stars, which you may have heard features a dying girl. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews is not that book, but it is a good book. In fact, while I wept several times while reading The Fault in Our Stars, I laughed out loud several times while reading Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It's not even fair to compare the two, so don't.
First lines: I have no idea how to write this stupid book.
The first thing you should know about Me and Earl is that it isn't really about a dying girl, it is about Greg and sometimes about his friend Earl and the dying girl, who also goes by the name Rachel. Greg and Earl are kinda sorta friends who don't really talk to each other in depth but do spend a lot of time hanging out together playing video games and, more importantly, aspiring to be film makers.
Greg narrates this tale in a unique voice, often wondering why the reader is even still reading this woefully poorly written tale (his words, not mine). At one point Greg becomes so bored of the entire thing that he overviews some scenes using bullet points. At other times it is written as a movie manuscript. It is an irreverent form of storytelling from a narrator that isn't really that committed to the tale on the surface; but the truth is that underneath all the glib (profane, self-deprecating) humor and reminders that we are wasting our time reading this tale, Greg makes a subtle transformation as he allows himself to be honest about his senior year in high school and how it all went horribly wrong.
You see, it was all his mom's fault. Greg has spent a lifetime making sure he stayed on the safe outer edges of high school groups and blends. Blending is important. And Greg assures us all that high school sucks. I think few would argue this basic point. Anyhow, Greg's mom comes to him and asks him to please please please be friends with Rachel because, well, she is dying. Suddenly Greg goes from being the guy barely on the register to a guy with a girlfriend, or at least a friend that is a girl who may or may not be his girlfriend. But not just any girlfriend, the dying one. Sometimes Earl hangs out with them, sometimes not.
Earl breaks the bro code and shows Rachel the movies that Greg and Earl have made to cheer her up. Eventually they find themselves trying to make a film for Rachel, who it turns out is a big fan of their work. Many of their attempts go woefully wrong. As the story progresses Greg is really forced to examine himself and everything he knows about life and the world around him to face the emotional challenges of being friends with, well, a dying girl. Whereas The Fault in Our Stars looked from an inside point of view of what it is like to face death, this is an outsider looking in and trying to understand how to be in relationship with someone who is in a place that most of us can never imagine, and spend most of our lives trying to pretend doesn't exist because it makes us all so very uncomfortable.
It all sounds so deep and heavy, and sometimes it is. But it is also wickedly funny at parts. During one scene (which involves Greg and Earl unintentionally getting high) I laughed out loud, long and hard. Sometimes the reminders that this is a terrible tome were overbearing as a reader, but they fit with the character and his voice. Speaking of voice, you know at the beginning where I mentioned the back cover blurb and it described it as "profane" - yeah, it is. Greg and Earl are typical horny teenage guys who talk to each other using more curse words then the best sailor could muster the courage to use. This tale is definitely for the mature end of the young adult spectrum; in part because they alone would have the emotional maturity to step into these waters and of course because of some of the conversations that they have.
I am not even doing the characters of Earl justice in this review, because he is richly developed and I was actually quite moved by Earl. Earl is a guy from a broken home with a touch guy exterior who seems like he would have very little chance of having a successful life, but he lets little chinks in his armor show when talking about or interacting with Rachel. And he has a real honesty in the way he speaks. Earl is the character who stayed with me most after reading this tale; he moved me.
Like I said, this tale is not really so much about the dying girl as the dying girl is the catalyst for Greg's tale, but there are those poignant moments where the reality of what she is faces comes through and you remember that a death looms over this story. Rachel adds the necessary pathos to motivate Greg's tale (really, I just wanted to use the word pathos in this review as it was fitting to the tone of the novel). That's right - Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a funny, profane novel rich in pathos and just enough quirk to make it stand out in a field of morose titles. See what I did there, I snuck the word morose in, too. Rachel isn't as fully developed, and parts of this actually are a good choice for the character who never really embraces what is happening to her and instead allows Greg to do most of the talking while the two of them are together. (If I were going to in any way compare this to The Fault in Our Stars - which I know I said you totally shouldn't and you totally shouldn't - I would have to say she's no Hazel. But the truth is, she isn't meant to be.)
In the end, I liked this quirky read. It hit all the right notes for Greg who seemed like many of the teenage boys I have worked with over the years. I liked that he had a passion and that it influenced the writing style and voice of this book, I liked that he grew, and I like that he showed that you could be a seemingly irreverent teenage boy but that you couldn't escape having to think and feel about life. Like many teenage boys, Greg uses crude and self-deprecating humor to deflect and many teen readers will understand this language. Recommended for older teen readers, think Rob Thomas and Nick Hornby fans.