As soon as I think I’m caught up on writing reviews, I find myself buried even deeper. Part of it is because I can’t write the review as soon as I finish the book — I need time to think through what points are worth talking about and which resonated — and part of it is simply because it takes a long time to write a cogent and thorough review. Alas, sometimes I have to remind myself it’s okay to write short(er) reviews that get to the key points. Then I think my understanding of what a shorter review is pretty skewed, too. The point of this all is to say that today, I’ve got two reviews for the price of one!
I heard about Jesse Andrews’s debut Me and Earl and the Dying Girl because of Capillya’s author thoughts post on the cover. I’m not a big fan of cancer stories, but I bit the bullet on this one because it looked like a much more light hearted approach to the heavy topic. And it was.
Greg’s always been sort of a social outcast and fine with it. In fact, he sort of prides himself on it because it means he can blend in and out of all the different cliques in his smallish high school. Plus, he and his best friend Earl like to spend their time making videos. They aren’t good at it, and Greg will tell you as much. As the story begins, we know that the story is actually already over and we’re being told the “what happened” via a lengthy flashback essay. Not only is the set up immediately engaging because of this, but the essay set up also allows Greg to incorporate film scripting right into the story, and it makes his passion for making films more palpable from the onset.
Greg’s always been a little awkward around girls, and he’s willing to admit this. Because of his desire to sort of maintain a status-less social standing, he doesn’t like to make commitments to girls, either. But then Greg finds out from his mother that Rachel, one of the girls who he knew from a church group, has leukemia. And Greg’s mom thinks it is a great idea he befriend her so she feels less alone. He’s not thrilled about the prospect — it messes with his invisibility and, well, he feels weird suddenly befriending someone who could potentially die — but Greg does it anyway. What Greg and Rachel get out of the relationship is more than either could have expected.
This is a book that does characterization very well. As much as Greg likes to pretend he’s a rebel and he’s worlds different than anyone else, the truth is, he’s an average teen. He is easy to relate to, and he’s got a sense of humor that’s enjoyable as a reader. Earl, on the other hand, has a much more challenging life and personality than Greg does, but because we’re seeing Earl through Greg’s eyes, we aren’t given the impression that Earl is anything but a pretty good friend to Greg (we learn this isn’t necessarily the case the further we get into the book, as Earl is almost a foil to Rachel).
Andrews’s story is light-hearted, even up until the end when inevitably, things take a turn for the worse with Rachel. Greg has a good sense of humor, and he’s willing to reflect on everything that happened to him with that humor in place. Early on in the book, we hear Greg’s given up his film-making aspirations, and as the story unfolds, readers are unsure when or how it happens. This was what kept me compelled — I had so much invested in Greg because I liked him and wanted to see him pursue his dreams, but when he talks about the last film he makes, I understood why he believes he’s done with film making.
There’s definite male appeal in this book, and I appreciate how Andrews did not go down the romance path in this book. What emerges between Greg and Rachel is at best friendship and, in my mind, it’s not even necessarily friendship. This story was much less about what Rachel needed as she sunk deeper into illness and much more about Greg learning to connect with other people and to connect with himself. Leukemia is sort of the tool, and it’s used well and treated fairly without becoming maudlin or being too convenient and easy. Readers who are wary of cancer stories can rest assured that while the outcome in the story won’t necessarily be the happy one for Rachel, it doesn’t require the reader to bring their own baggage and experiences to the story. This one’s about Greg learning about himself.
The voice sings in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and that, along with the set-up and execution of the story reminded me a lot of Geoff Herbach’s Stupid Fast. This book will appeal to fans of Herbach’s, as well as those who love Brent Crawford’s Carter series. Andrews’s debut will be available March 1.
Brian James’s Life is But a Dream is an exploration into the debilitating mental illness of schizophrenia. From the onset, I was impressed with James’s ability to not conflate schizophrenia with dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities). This story follows Sabrina as she becomes sicker and sicker, to the point her parents choose to institutionalize her for treatment. Prior to institutionalization, Sabrina’s life was full of color and fantasy, and she lived in what basically amounted to a dream world. Her experiences in the real world paralleled what most people experience in deep sleep. While it doesn’t necessarily sound scary, the effects of such distance from reality isn’t pretty and it causes Sabrina to act in ways that put her in danger.
While being treated, Sabrina meets Alec, a boy who convinces her the folks in the institution are working against her. Taking the drugs they’re giving her is only harming her, he says, and she begins to believe him. She doesn’t want to become brain dead, and she becomes convinced her life will be better if she doesn’t go along for the treatment. So she and Alex make an escape plan. To save themselves.
This part is spoiler, so feel free to skip down to the following paragraph. As a reader who knows a bit about schizophrenia (and about Sabrina’s experiences with it), I was never quite sure whether Alec actually existed or if he was one of those dreams concocted in Sabrina’s mind. The evidence to support either argument is in the book — he could be real or he could be a figment of her dream world telling her to act a certain way. Even in the end, when Sabrina makes a run for it, it’s uncertain either way.
The uncertainty, though, might be the greatest strength in the book. I found the writing to be distancing, and while it works for Sabrina’s world and her own voice, it kept me far away from her, too. I couldn’t connect with her in any way, and because I wanted to, I became frustrated. It makes sense because that’s how these illnesses work, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it works for readers. It’s a dream world.
Moreover, I found it a little disappointing that the person who’d save Sabrina would be a boy, as I find that a trend that won’t stop coming. Even if what I said in the previous paragraph were true, it still doesn’t settle too well for me. I’d not come to see Sabrina as much of a romantic or one who’d love a relationship with Alec, but it’s something I could have bought had Sabrina’s voice been stronger and she let me in. Fans of stories about mental illness will want to read this one, especially those who are interested in schizophrenia because James nails it (I’d say textbook nails it, but textbooks can leave out the emotional side of the illness, and James offers that quite well). Life is But a Dream will be available in mid-March.
Review copies provided by the publishers.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).