Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
Review originally published on TFW’s sister blog, The Book Academy. October 2015.
Greg Gaines is a teenage boy who lives his life on the edges: the edge of social groups, the edge of family relationships, and the edge of his own emotions. He expends so much mental energy trying to avoid being rejected that he misses creating personal connections with everyone around him. The only friend Greg has is Earl, but even that friendship is undeveloped. When his mom makes him hang out with Rachel, who has been diagnosed with leukemia, the results are less disastrous than Greg predicts. The story of the unconventional friendship between Greg, Earl, and Rachel is told from Greg’s point of view as he writes a book about the experience. The profanity-laced narrative reads somewhat like a diary of Greg’s extreme social awkwardness and self-hatred. There are moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity as Greg appears to stay detached from his feelings regarding Rachel’s illness. Earl’s voice is pitch perfect and his unexpected wisdom is refreshing. In Greg, author Jesse Andrews succeeds in creating a character who is unaware of his own emotional state, though the people around him (including readers) understand him quite well. The blurb for the book said that this is the funniest book you will ever read about death. I have to agree with that; however, Andrews doesn’t pull his punch in the end. Read it. You won’t be sorry.
Why I love it: Beyond the profanity, the jokes, and the amusing social awkwardness, lies a story about the quiet, pointless loss that lives inside the people whose loved ones die. There is an admission that we are sometimes unable to create or find meaning in death, especially the death of someone who hasn’t had much time to live. It shines a light on the difficult process of dealing with the emotions that come with watching someone die…the futility and absolute necessity of trying to make their remaining days better. Most of all, I love this book because it’s true.
Goodreads Chat: Jesse did an author chat on Goodreads a few days ago. I was lucky enough to have four of my questions answered. I’ve included them here. Warning: Questions and answers contain some spoilers.
Carrie: There is a Jane Austen reference in MEDG. Is it there because you like Austen’s novels or because it’s a great line?
Jesse: both of course! and not just a great line but a great FIRST line—first sentences of novels are brutally hard to do well and austen’s are so goddamned good.
Carrie: As he was writing the book, was Greg aware that the whole process would be cathartic? There are a few points at the end of chapters when he says he hates writing about all of it. I guess what I’m asking is if, in your mind, Greg realized the process was cathartic or if he was just forcing himself to do it for the Pitt admissions people? He wasn’t incredibly self-aware about his grief before Rachel died.
Jesse: no, it’s all very subterranean with him—he’s pretty out of touch with his feelings, like a lot of boys his age. so no, i don’t think he’s aware that he needs catharsis—but the book is that need expressing itself. he hates writing it because it’s so painful, but he’s mistaken that pain just for free-floating ambient self-discomfort—a phenomenon that i think is actually kind of common but not often written about, and was hoping to capture believably.
Carrie: Not a question? But I wanted to say that I love how true the portrayal of grief was for Greg, Earl, Rachel’s mom, and Greg’s mom. Sometimes it is “just a stupid, meaningless loss,” a loss, loss, loss. Yes, it is. Seeing it written down like that really resonated and was oddly comforting. Thank you for being willing to admit that sometimes there isn’t meaning in the loss.
Jesse: you are welcome and i’m grateful to you for telling me you connected with that part of the book in particular—we have this great fear of not being able to mine meaning from experience, and i wanted to address that too. (and sometimes we do find meaning in terrible things—just not meaning that is expressible in a single sentence, or maybe even in language at all—and that’s also frightening, but less so if we can admit it to each other.)
Carrie: What is it about Virginia Woolf’s writing that opened everything up for you? Are you able to choose one of her books as a favorite or is that just too hard?
Jesse: it was just the first kind of extreme psychological realism that i encountered in a book that i really FELT, viscerally—she puts you so convincingly the interior of someone else’s mind, with all its strange familiar patterns of thought and repetition and interruption, and it was a total revelation to me. it made me feel the infinite possibility of words on a page—that they could convey not just exteriors but interiors, and the latter was actually far more interesting and unbounded. the book that did that was mrs. dalloway but i prefer to the lighthouse now.