Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Author: Jesse Andrews
Genre: contemporary, young-adult fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 304 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: April 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4.25/5

Greg Gaines is the last master of high school espionage, able to disappear at will into any social environment. He has only one friend, Earl, and together they spend their time making movies, their own incomprehensible versions of Coppola and Herzog cult classics. 

Until Greg's mother forces him to rekindle his childhood friendship with Rachel. Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia - cue extreme adolescent awkwardness - but a parental mandate has been issued and must be obeyed. When Rachel stops treatment, Greg and Earl decide the thing to do is to make a film for her, which turns into the Worst Film Ever Made and becomes a turning point in each of their lives. 

And all at once Greg must abandon invisibility and stand in the spotlight.

Oh wow, did this book entertain me. I mean, really, really entertain me - I giggled, then I laughed out loud, and then I laugh-snorted; this book is impossible to resist. This book and the unique blend of humor and pain contained within is charming, odd, gross and wholly readable, though it does have a few flaws. This is three hundred pages of pure, unadulterated teenage boy; main character and star of the show Greg S. Gaines ventures from beyond being a mere figment of the imagination into a three-dimensional, occasionally rude, person. Both characters and the humor are the most noteworthy aspects of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and while this is indeed a dreaded "cancer" book, this is nothing like the Nicholas Sparks brand of the same. As Greg himself so succinctly put it: "This book contains precisely zero Important Life Lessons, or Little-Known Facts About Love, or sappy, tear-jerking Moments When We Knew We Had Left Our Childhood Behind for Good, or whatever. And, unlike most books in which a girl gets cancer, there are definitely no sugary paradoxical single-sentence-paragraphs that you're supposed to are deep because they're in italics."

Right away, readers will know how they feel about the main character: they will love him and root for him through his foibles or they'll dislike him and his immature brand of humor. His voice is fresh and very observant and absolutely without a filter. While I personally clearly found Greg to be more than lol-worthy, I also felt a lot of pity for the kid. I like that he's a conflicted character; he struggles with friendship and death but grows as a person while doing so over the course of the book. At the beginning of the novel, Greg avoids any kind of associations, friendships because he is so scared of what anyone else might think of him - and has done for years. He describes himself as an adept at "high school espionage" but all I saw was a sad, lonely kid that isolates himself on purpose from others, so he can say his constant state of aloneness is what he wanted. He's so insecure he doesn't trust other people to like him - hence the reliance on Earl for years, and the lack of any real connection even between them.

Earl and Rachel are the side characters, the background characters to Greg's star, but they are the heart of the novel. They are what kept me invested after I was worn out on gross-out humor and Greg's issues. While Greg worms his way in with awkwardness and the aforementioned off-note humor, Earl's brash attitude and no-nonsense approach to life, home, and family quickly endeared him to me. Earl and Greg complemented each other quite well; neither has a solid set of social skills so their unlikely pairing was authentic and believable. I also have to applaud the author for not taking the easy and quite popular route with Greg's family - they're a varied, lively, engrossing bunch and it is always, always rare and refreshing to read a loving family environment in the young-adult genre. Rachel, the "dying girl" of the title was far more remote for the three hundred pages; she's not accessible like Greg who jokes his feelings, or Earl who has a face for every emotion. She's more unknowable, to both the reader and to the boys and that's one of the things that makes her situation so sad and compelling to read.

The style of the novel is fairly simple - it's Greg narrating his life over the last few months with Earl and Rachel. What's interesting about the book is that instead of regular novel format, is (1) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will occasionally sift into a screenplay format and (2) It occasionally reads like Greg himself is breaking the fourth wall and actually addressing his audience, i.e. the reader themself. While the second part is cleared up til later (and I am not going to spoil it for new readers) I thought the switch between formats was a very clever way to illustrate how important film is to Greg; it's how he usually expresses himself so that was a very nice touch on the part of the author's. Obviously, there's not much traditional about the structure of this book, but that works quite well for how Greg narrates. I also appreciate that the cover looks like a reel from an old film - it ties in very nicely with the plot and the most important movie that Gaines/Williams will make: Rachel the Film.

As in life, so with books: all good things must come to an end. Greg Gaines, like many high school boys I know/knew, just doesn't know when to call it good on a joke. He never quits with the asides and deflections - not even when it seems to be time to do so.  This book often surprised me with its unique brand of humor, but after a while, certain jokes and gags wore out their welcome. I started to want more reaction from Greg than a quick quip or an elaborate riff on... alien barf or Gross-Out Mode. Everything in proportion is better and if the humor had eased up more towards the end and y'know, the emotional part, this quite likely would've been a 5-star read. 

Despite the oversaturation of gags and humorous awkwardness, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a winner. It's a nice palate cleanser of a cancer book - it's emotional and affecting but not in the saccharine and overproduced ways so popular among most cancer books - the goal here is to make you laugh, not to make you cry.

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