Book review: Our Chemical Hearts, Krystal Sutherland

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A mysterious wounded girl arrives at school, combative and elusive, and captivates the heart of a boy who finally finds the thing he didn’t know he needed. Add on a dramatic limp to make her even more vulnerable and fragile, and you have Our Chemical Hearts, which could have been so much, but wasn’t.

The book revolves around Henry, a sort of average guy who bumbles along until he meets Grace Town, the fascinating new girl who clearly has a Dark Past and Secrets and needs someone to pull her out of her shell. Cue a nonsensical whirlwind romance, in which she apparently becomes enamored of him but can’t really explain why, and quixotic, quirky, fun, wild things like a mysterious pool of fish inside an abandoned building and midnight trips through the streets of town.

But of course, all good things must come to an end! For Grace is moody and Troubled, and Henry begins to learn all about the Dark Secrets in her past, which really just serve to make her more alluring as he learns how damaged and special she is. He, you see, is the only one who can restore her, cure her, bring her back to life after the tragic accident that left her limping and punishing herself for living when her boyfriend didn’t.

I cannot even begin to tell you how tired I am of books like this. It’s not entirely Our Chemical Hearts’ fault, but the book is appearing in the context of an endless parade of books exactly like it. And it’s just so…look, I’m not a teenager anymore. And when I was a teen, books along these lines definitely had some appeal for me — I was young, I was figuring things out, I fancied myself a wounded and dark hero, and so forth. That said, I also read a huge diversity of other books, and would have been really frustrated with a diet of this kind of thing alone.

And I’m seeing a family of books emerging at the moment that fall out along very similar lines. Quirky, wise beyond his years, funny, sardonic male hero, mysterious, wounded, flighty heroine that he has to save. They’re annoying on multiple levels. One of them is certainly the sexism, because I’m exhausted with female wilting lilies who have to be saved from the big bad world by nice strong boys. There’s also a certain element of authorial insertion — this book is actually a bit of an exception because the author is a woman, but a lot of these books are coming from male authors who are very painfully writing themselves into their books over and over again, and putting themselves in the position of saving the sweet young girls who desperately need the influence of a man in their lives.

It sounds a little sinister when I put it like that, but on reflection, maybe it should. There’s something sinister about a primarily male-driven subset of the YA lexicon that consists of books with poorly-veiled avatars of their male authors saving teenage girls. I find it creepy that some of these books are essentially RPF of authors and their own readers, because these books are written with a female audience in mind, and they are very clearly written with the intent of having the reader identify with the girl. That’s a bit discomfiting, because I would like to think that we’ve progressed enough as a society that we can have books about things in which women do cool things and aren’t cookie cutter stereotypes.

In fact, I know we’ve progressed that much, because I see those books out in the wild, but this Very Special Boy/Wounded Girl drama is as old as dirt, and about as enjoyable. Why are we still acquiring and promoting this stuff? Isn’t there something better out there? Do we have to print these books in such volume? In this case, a woman wrote the text, so the reading changes a bit, but it feels painfully imitative of a certain class of her male cohorts, and it’s boring and irritating and there are so many better things we could be doing with our time, as readers and writers and thinkers and critics.

Clearly, there’s an audience for this kind of thing, but I wonder in part if that’s because they don’t have access to other things to read. It’s a chicken and egg problem: Publishers say that books along such-and-such lines don’t sell, but that’s because they have virtually none of them in their catalogues, and they’re very poorly promoted when they are. I get a lot of books for review, and let me tell you, when I’m triaging books to read, I cannot even begin to count the number of books with a virtually identical plot: Special Boy/Wounded Girl, doomed romance, secrets, magical resolution with a ‘bittersweet’ twist.

Is this really the best we can do for young adults? Is this all we have to offer to the next generation of readers, and writers? When you hear people discussing the dearth of diverse books in publishing while seeing endless stories like this one get churned out, it’s hard not to be a little bitter. There are scores of books I’ve rather be reviewing than this one, but I can’t, because they don’t exist, and that strikes me as manifestly unfair.

Image: Cleaned up seams, Pomax, Flickr