Written by Lauryn Smith
Remember how I was just saying that it is possible for young adult novels to be both quirky and meaningful? (I recently reviewed one that was just… not.)
I now have proof. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Andrews is an awesome YA novel, one that is both entertaining and artful. It was even made into a movie recently. No, I have not seen the movie adaptation yet; I am abiding by the unspoken rule that you need to read a book before you see its movie. Now that I have read the book, I am all for seeing the motion picture; it is probably awesome, too.
The story is told from the perspective of Greg Gaines, a teenager dealing with the peril that is high school. His philosophy: be friendly to everyone, but make no friends. The logic is that if everyone knows just a little bit about you, they will generally like and accept you. Things are easier that way. The only person Greg defines as a friend is Earl, a gritty guy with a dirty mouth who lives by no rules. The boys’ shared interest is film, both the viewing of and making of. Together, they recreate all kinds of movies, most of which turn out comedic despite the intended genre.
All is well and good until one day Greg’s mom asks him to befriend Rachel, a childhood acquaintance who was recently diagnosed with leukemia. After some trial and error, Greg becomes Rachel’s welcome comedic relief. Despite his reluctance to let anyone see his films, Greg shares them with Rachel, who finds great joy in them. So much joy, that Greg and Earl vow to make a film about Rachel’s life.
Given the plot I just described, it is amazing that “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is not an entirely depressing book. In fact, it is tender and lighthearted. The prose is incredibly unique, as there is no rhyme or reason to it. Proper grammar and sentence structure are at times nonexistent, but in the best way possible. Instead of traditional formatting, Andrews chose to present the story as though Greg were writing down his day-to-day in a grudgingly completed journal, different font styles and sizes included.
Take the book’s opening line, for instance: “I have no idea how to write this stupid book.” This is followed with prose that is appropriately represented by the following:
I felt like the biggest douchebag in the world. Somehow the conversation was 100 percent what I was expecting, yet I still managed to be blindsided by it. By the way, this kind of awkward fiasco was always what happened when Mom tried to get involved in my social life. Let me point out here that it’s acceptable for moms to try to run their kids’ social lives when the kids are in kindergarten or whatever. But I have a mom who didn’t stop scheduling playdates for me until I reached the ninth grade.
The decision to write in an unconventional manner is genius. The story could easily have been a total downer, but instead it is the complete opposite, full of humor and raw, unfiltered emotions. Perhaps this frankness is what enhances the book’s universality. Andrews breaks the mold typical of YA books, particularly tear-jerkers (á la “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green), resulting in a story that young and old, rich and poor, popular and unpopular will find relatable and endearing.
Provided that the matter of mortality oftentimes makes people uncomfortable, it might be argued that Andrews’s purpose in writing “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is to make the concepts of death and dying more palatable. He exposes and illuminates the sensitivities surrounding death, such as the physical and psychological responses common to both those directly and indirectly affected. Wrapped in a package of youth, spunk and amusement, though, the notions become more accessible, ones that someone might willingly confront.
In addition to the succinct, intense, sprightly prose, the characterization is phenomenal. Obviously Greg, being the lead character, is well developed and entirely likable. Earl, too, is described in a crisp, engaging way, even given the ferocity and neglect that is inherent to his home life. (Earl is definitely my favorite character in this book. So many feels.) But Andrews reveals additional ingenuity. One of the three titular characters, Rachel, AKA, the dying girl, acts as more of a secondary character. Though she is clearly important to the story, she is interestingly not the focus, though still well defined.
Other secondary characters are also expressed incredibly well. A standout is Mr. McCarthy, a teacher at the boys’ school. We learn that he is a fact-loving, pho-eating, tattoo-covered guy who has no problem leveling with students, such as when he comments to Earl one day that his lunch of cookies, chips, Coke and Skittles is “garbage.” Overall, the cast and its presentation is refreshing and 100 percent successful.
It is difficult to pinpoint a part of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” that could use improvement. The work is definitely experimental, with its lists and exclamations and wittiness and diary-style writing and so much more. Yet each part is well balanced, and nothing is too tiresome, overdone or outrageous. The book exhibits great discretion in its composition.
Ultimately, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” comfortingly reflects common reactions to heavy concepts. We learn that deep down, people react to hardships comparably, even if the reactions themselves manifest differently. Andrews demonstrates that many times even individuals who appear tough are actually tender, with an inner desire to make a positive impact. What’s more, he shows that people who may not appear to impact someone’s life actually might at some point down the road, in ways large or small.
Even though the novel’s final form appears uncomplicated, it undoubtedly took a lot of work to have it be that way. Perhaps the book’s simplicity is reason for its success. Andrews clearly had the reader in mind as he wrote. The book can easily be read in a day, but it is powerful nonetheless. The story is one that sticks with you.
That said, I would recommend this book to any reader. It is a great form of entertaining elucidation for young readers. For older readers, it provides a means for reassurance and reflection. All around, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” connects generations and peer groups.
Alright, popcorn is done. Movie time.
Title: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Author: Jesse Andrews
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Publication date: March 1, 2012
Page count: 295
List price: $9.95
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