After The Fault in Our Stars, I kind of thought no one should bother trying to write books about kids with cancer, even though lots of people have been working extensively in this genre for years. Extensively and badly, I should note; I’m used to reading saccharine and horrific books that make me want to bash my head into things when kids and cancer are involved, and John Green’s entry offering was such a decisive and definitive work that it kind of felt like he broke the mold there.
But, as it turns out, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl came out around the same time, and it’s pretty darn good. It’s distinctly different from other books about childhood cancers, and it’s also distinct from The Fault in Our Stars, although there are some obvious parallels between the two books—I hasten to note that I am not making any Implications here, simply noting that both authors took this particular genre in a very different direction with their books, and it’s refreshing to see that it is possible to break out of painfully troped representations of kids with cancers and disabilities.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a first person POV from a narrator (Greg) whose mother orders him to connect with Rachel, a girl he largely remembers because they were in Hebrew school together and he was rather mean to her, after she’s diagnosed with leukemia. Over the course of the book, he develops a relationship with her, and, well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but this is not a happy book. In fact, since I was yelled at for this in the wake of The Fault in Our Stars, let me warn you up front that this is not a happy book, and it will make you sad, and there may possibly be some crying at some point during your reading experience.
Greg and his friend Earl make movies together, which is one of the key plot points of the book; parts of it are written in script style, film history and knowledge are woven throughout the story, and Greg often talks about the movies they’ve made over the course of their friendship. This becomes critical when they are pressured into making a movie for Rachel and then humiliated when their parents decide to air it in front of the whole school even after the two boys indicated that the movie, like their other work, was private and wasn’t really intended for the whole world to see.
Greg is dealing with adolescence and coming of age and all those things, and he’s also confronting death and dying as he interacts with Rachel. Like Hazel and Gus in The Fault in Our Stars, Rachel defies narratives about childhood cancers; she is not picturesquely weak and tragic, she’s fiery and zesty. But she’s also very, very tired, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl forces readers to explore what happens when people are tired of treatment and exhausted with the struggle to live.
As Greg says to his mother in a scene early in the book, the whole thing sucks and isn’t very fair. Like Green, Andrews reminds readers that cancer isn’t some kind of great inspiring lesson, that kids with cancer aren’t there to be models of sainthood for the people around them. They’re just sick kids who got sick because something went wacky with their cell division, and it sucks and isn’t fair, because nature isn’t fair, and nature can in fact be quite cruel and rather vicious. There’s nothing to learn here, no great life-changing moment, there’s nothing about death that is inspiring. Death is just there, waiting.
Greg and Earl are two very different people and I also love watching their friendship over the course of the book. In many ways, Greg is intensely selfish, and this serves as a wakeup call for him; I like that instead of using cancer as a mechanism to force Greg to grow up, Andrews used his existing friendship, and empowered Earl to start taking charge in the relationship, demanding and expecting more from his friend. There were also some class issues explored in the text, contrasting Greg’s relatively sheltered and pleasant upbringing with Earl’s harsher life, but not in a way that turned Earl into a tragic figure of inspirational learning and Important Conversations About Life.
There’s an emotionally intense but still balanced view of life with cancer in the text, and it’s also funny, which endears it to me intensely. There are parts of the book where I laughed out loud, just as there were parts that were deeply sad, and Andrews managed to capture the simultaneous absurdity and deep tragedy of life—not cancer, but life itself. It can be hard to hit a good tone when writing about these subjects, especially when branching out from the traditional misery-drenched sappy narrative, and Andrews really managed to nail it for most of the book, right down to Greg’s detailed explanation of high school survival tactics.
No special lessons are contained in this book; it’s not preachy or lecturey or intended to do anything other than tell a story. It’s a story that is both hilarious and sad, and it’s told in a rather creative and kind of fun way that sets it apart from similar texts. Overall, I’d give Me and Earl and the Dying Girl solid marks, and I think you’d rather enjoy it.