In my old age, I’ve come to realize that I have very little patience for books that I don’t like. If it doesn’t grab me in the first fifty pages or so, I’ll typically give up and move on to something I might actually enjoy. (Case in point, my recent abandonment of I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, which I found so insanely grating that I actually returned it to Audible.) So I’m kind of angry at myself that I stuck it out for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, because guys, I really really REALLY did not enjoy this book.
The “Me” in the title is a kid named Greg, who is bumbling his way through senior year of high school with one goal – to be completely invisible to everyone around him. He goes about this by becoming friendly, but not friends, with every group on campus in an effort to blend in everywhere but belong nowhere. This has been his M.O. for the majority of high school and it has, for the most part, succeeded in keeping him being noticed by pretty much anyone, even though he thinks that if he doesn’t work SUPER HARD at blending in, the whole system will just fall apart. His only real acquaintance is his “coworker,” Earl, with whom he shares a love for the kind of movies that most high school kids can’t stomach. Together, they spend their free time creating remakes of their favorites with their own twists. Greg’s life is working out pretty well for him (at least in his own mind), until his mother forces him to befriend his classmate Rachel, who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 leukemia.
Before I get into this review, I want to say that I understand this is a book about teenagers, and that teenagers are, by and large, narcissistic assholes. They just are. They actually can’t help it. I took a development psychology class in college and was fascinated by the theories on teenagers and where they are in their mental development – namely, that they are unable to see the world beyond their own little sphere of self and those close to them, partially because they lack the life experience and partially because their brains just haven’t developed to that point yet. So yes, I get it, but if I wanted to experience the real, ugly, narcissistic assholery of the average teenager, I’d go hang out at a high school. So perhaps that might explain why being shoved into the head of a character like Greg for the 6+ hours of this audiobook just wasn’t my cup of tea.
One of my main problems with the book is that I feel like the characters were never fleshed out very well (except for Greg, who I frankly could have done with less of). Most of the time, Rachel seems like a tertiary character, and I was surprisingly not all that upset when she (spoiler) died. Greg’s parents, who actually had the potential to be interesting because they were just that odd, were background as well. We know more about the bust size of Greg’s crush than her actual personality, and I forgot until 3/4 of the way through the book that Greg even had sisters.
Earl felt more solid, but something about his characterization made me uncomfortable, even as I found him the most interesting and relate-able character in the book. He was the only major character of color, and it was like the author so wanted to make you aware of this fact that he threw every stereotype in the book at the kid. Poor and not living up to his potential? Check. Absent dad? Check. Alcoholic mother? Check. Gang member little brother who already got a girl pregnant at 13 and deals drugs on the side? Check check checkity check. And yet even with all of this, Earl is still the best character in the whole book, mostly because he remains just as annoyed with Greg throughout the book as I am, only he gets to tell him off for it.
I don’t want to say that Greg doesn’t have a character arc, because he does. He goes from being basically a loner to having someone in his life that he actually cares about. But he never fully commits to the people in his life being in his life. He describes his best friend as a coworker and acquaintance. His interactions with Rachel are enjoyable, but he admits that what he most enjoys about them is that he’s good at making Rachel laugh and that he enjoys the feeling of being good at something. When Rachel inevitably dies, his grief is not over losing someone important in his life, but over losing the opportunity to have someone important in his life. His arc leads him to realize how he has shut people out, but never reaches the satisfying conclusion of letting people in.
And maybe that was my problem from the get-go. Greg’s an ass. I wanted to see him become something other than an ass, but he never quite gets there. I can’t say I wasn’t warned. The author does like to point out, ad nauseum, that this isn’t a typical YA book, don’t expect typical YA book-type revelations to happen, OMG THIS IS NOT A JOHN GREEN NOVEL, etc. So yeah, I get it. And maybe for some people, that’s the wonderful, refreshing thing about this book and why so many people love it – that it shows teenagers in all their self-absorbed glory, the world in all its harshness. It shows that sometimes, we don’t let the dying girl in until it’s too late and have to live with that regret. In that way, it’s an admirable story to tell, but it’s not the story I wanted to read.
ETA: The trailer of the movie is actually what made me want to read this book, and I still think it looks better than the book itself. I’ll be curious to see.