There's something about stories set in high school that I just can't get enough of. You'd think, now that I've been out of that awful place for ten whole years, I'd be over it, but I just get so sucked in to a well-written depiction of awkward teenagers learning monumental life lessons between chemistry and world history classes. Did I ever have such life-changing experiences in high school? Did I come to any eye-opening realizations that altered the way I viewed the world around me while hammering out my calculus homework?
Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl covers a high school experience that is definitely miles away from my own, though somehow I can relate to the narrator, Greg. Greg takes the whole concept of being a loner to quite the extreme- he has carefully constructed a scenario in which he is not actually a member of any of his high school's social groups because, according to his well-reasoned logic, to be a member of any group is to make enemies of a rival group, so by not having any friends, he has guaranteed that he does not have any enemies. This premise seems reasonable at first- in college I had a similar desire to fly under the radar and not get caught up in the complicated social structure outside of class- but it quickly becomes evident that his nonchalant, quite literally too-cool-for-school facade is just the result of a paralyzing fear of rejection. The one person who Greg should in fact consider a friend- the one person with whom he spends all his time, and with whom he shares his one hobby- is Earl, and in his desperate attempt to hang on to this relationship, Greg refers to him as a "coworker" rather than friend.
This precariously perfected lack of social life comes to a crashing halt when Greg's mother interferes rather accidentally- something all mothers have a knack for. A classmate has been diagnosed with leukemia, and Greg's mother demands that he spend time with her, because she needs a friend. This is in direct contrast to Greg's preferred modus operandi of, you know, not having friends, so Greg drags his feet and pronounces the awkwardness of the situation at every step, yet he does spend time with Rachel (and Earl, his not-a-friend).
Lest you think this is another Fault in Our Stars, Greg lets us know from the very beginning that this is not a romantic story. Nobody falls in love with anybody- and rightly so, as Greg does not exactly make himself loveable as he builds walls and vocally refuses to get attached to anyone- but Greg does learn some fundamental truths about being human and living life. It's rather painful at times observing his interactions with Rachel through his own embellished narration as he is so clueless to exactly how much of a jerkwad he's being and exactly how wasteful he is with his own life in the presence of someone whose life is fading, but eventually, finally, blessedly, he gets it. And we get it. And we probably cry a little bit, though Greg has taken great pains to tell this story as a comedy.
I'm not sure I've ever met anyone so overtly anti-social as Greg. My lifetime career as a nerd has brought me into contact with many introverts, but none who declare their introversion out loud in every conversation. I know the value of alone time, and of keeping a small circle of friends rather than legions of followers, but that's more a product of my personality than a guard against those who might hurt me. Even still, I think we can all find a bit of Greg in ourselves- we're all humans, and we all tend towards selfishness, though we may think we're being pragmatic. But because we're all humans, we need each other. We need relationships. We need community. We can't isolate ourselves and walk through life alone. Life requires us to make an impact on other people and, in turn, that those people make impacts on us. And life on earth is finite and fleeting; we'd better learn quickly to not waste it.
All in all, this is a really good book. The storytelling is so original and the humor so pervasive that the inevitable tears will truly take you by surprise- but it is a cancer kids book, after all. It's written in the first person from a teenage boy's perspective and is therefore rife with profanity and sexually explicit humor, all lending themselves to probably the most authentic voice in any YA novel I've read in a long time. The little book club I'm a part of watched the movie after we finished reading the book and, as usual, I prefer the book. Greg is a lot more likeable in the movie than he is in the book, but I think this story is most powerful if you can approach Greg in an effort to be his friend, discover that you kind of hate him, watch him realize that he kind of hates himself, and then breathe a sigh of relief when he finally, finally stops being such a jackass. (Earl is the conduit through which the audience experiences these emotions, and much more explicitly so in the movie.) The movie captures the humor and heart of the book perfectly, though.
As with most stories about high school, this is probably best enjoyed by those who have already lived it; while the things Greg and Earl experience are realistic in that they happen to real people, teenagers tend to see these depictions as romanticizing what are, in reality, tragic circumstances, and are therefore in danger of becoming tragic characters themselves.
What have you read lately?