Imagine this: You’re Augustus Waters on a plane for the first time, with a full tummy but a burning hunger to fulfill a storyline’s situational irony quota. You pull out a cigarette only to have a stewardess tell you that smoking on a plane is illegal. Do you (a) apologize and put the cigarette away, (b) put it away but take it out when the stewardess isn’t looking, (c) stick it up your ass, or (d) have your girlfriend look the stewardess in the eye and tell her, “it’s a metaphor.”
If you were truly Augustus Waters, you’d know the correct (but at what cost?) answer is (d). The stewardess, of course, will look at you and think to herself, “what the fuck,” but hey! She just doesn’t understand that these teenage “coming of age” metaphors, over the years, have become YA novel staples the same way we fall asleep; slowly, then all at once.
A book similar in themes but far superior in realism, writing, storyline, friendships, and just about everything else, is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews.
Let me bash The Fault in Our Stars one more time. It is a novel that glamorizes illness written with the intent on making you cry. Lastly, if you take away the beautiful message about our lives and eventual death, then you may gain insight into how to fall in love with someone with a terminal illness. Although this doesn’t seem like a very bad thing, realistically experiences with terminal illnesses are scaring and tragic. Rarely do people have a loving and romantic outcome.
Everything that lack’s in Green’s novel can be found in Andrews’ debut. We’re given funny, relatable, realistic characters over philosophers and life lessons. These characters react just as expected in any situation thrown at them, especially when given the situation surrounding cancer. Matter-of-factly protagonist Greg Gaines, instead of trying to make everything better, resorts to simply saying, “this sucks.” He doesn’t buy leukemia-ridden Rachel Kushner chocolates and flowers, nor does he give away his Make-A-Wish Foundation wish for her to go to another country. In fact, the only nice thing he does for her is make her a movie he was coerced into making, and only left him miserable.
Greg, as much of the white, straight, high school senior he is, may not always be a fan favorite. He’s a flawed anti-hero who feels an obligation to hang out with Rachel because she’s dying, and he most definitely does not know how to handle death. Throughout the whole novel I kept thinking to myself how awful a person he is. I hated him. What an arrogant, self-depreciating jerk. By the end of the novel, Greg shows a lot of progress from being a teen who frankly doesn’t give a shit, to someone who realizes the effects of death and how we should commemorate the memories of those lost – and that somewhat redeemed him.
“Actually, we hadn’t made the film about her at all. She was just dying, there, and we had gone and made a film about ourselves. We had taken this girl and used her really to make a film about ourselves, and it just seemed so stupid and wrong that I couldn’t stop crying. Rachel the Film is not at all about Rachel. It’s about how little we know about Rachel. “
Of course, there are more characters than Greg and Rachel; Greg’s friend Earl being the most prominent. He and Greg are both amateur film makers, something that easily plays into the flow of the novel. Earl would’ve been a strong, round character if not for him and his family being portrayed stereotypically; rundown, poor qualities and habits, and always angry and fighting. What I did like about him was some of the things he did and said. This includes all the German he spoke in fifth grade:
standing up, pointing to MRS.
WOZIEWSKI, addressing class
Der Mann ist einen Kopf gröber als ich. DAS KANN SICH ÄNDERN. [subtitle: That man is a head taller than me. THAT CAN CHANGE.]
Earl, please go sit in the hall.
(Would like to note, and this I found fascinating, Andrews has some parts of dialogue read as a screenplay, other parts are written as bullet points. Both are used successfully)
Other characters such as Mr. McCathy, Greg’s parents, and the HGWAASGHPAWNIDYL (Hot Girls Who Are Also Sympathetic Good-Hearted People and Will Not Intentionally Destroy Your Life) play a part to both the main plot and the sub-plot.
If I had to weight what is likable and unlikeable about this book, it’s very easy for me to say that the vocabulary doesn’t do a whole lot for me. By this I mean that yes, Greg the narrator isn’t a college graduate and he’s not doing very well in school, but he should know some synonyms of inane. At least one. Come on. Not to mention the excessive profanity.
There were times in which I laughed to myself at the beach, and even the seagulls would look over and wonder what I found amusing. There were times I read a joke and didn’t crack a smile. Either way, I recommend Jesse Andrews’ debut novel, for the reasoning that the forced rekindle of a childhood friendship helped someone so snarky and stubborn grow.
After thought: It’s innate to compare and contrast (ex: we compare ourselves to others), and to pit two or more nouns against each other. Could I have started this review without bashing TFIOS? Absolutely. But that’s no fun. Additionally, I have to commend Jesse Andrews for writing an entertaining book that also deals with the serious topic of cancer. Unlike John Green, who throws his beloved character a pre-funeral that reads more as a party.