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The Compulsive Reader: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Monday, August 17, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

I've had Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews on my to-read list for ages and ages, but it finally took seeing the movie trailer to get me to pick up the book. (Hey, whatever works, right?)

One blurb calls this book the "funniest book about death you'll ever read," and I'd like to say upfront that this is completely accurate. Greg Gaines is a high school senior who is proud to have gotten through his entire life not being friends with anyone, but just sort of skimming through all of the social groups at his school. The closest thing to a friend he has to a friend is Earl, who's more like a co-worker than a friend (Greg and Earl have been making terrible films since they were kids). But his mom decides to ruin Greg's carefully maintained social non-status by making him befriend Rachel, a classmate who has just been diagnosed with leukemia, and that's when things start to get messed up.

First off, I dare you to pick up this book, read the first three pages, and then not keep reading. You won't be able to put it down. Andrews nails Greg's voice just perfectly. He's snarky and sarcastic and very honest, and frankly, sometimes he's kind of a jerk. But his ramblings are very genuine, so you don't mind. Greg's descriptions of his family, pseudo-friends, the films he and Earl create, and his dialogue with Rachel and others is relentlessly entertaining and fresh. Andrews uses a mix of prose, lists, film reviews, and screenplay formatting to tell the story and it's all very in the moment and appropriate for each scene.

Every character in this novel is brilliantly done. My favorite character was Earl--his background is pretty bleak, but he's hilarious and straightforward and he doesn't take any shit from anyone. Greg's mom is also pretty wonderfully realized, and his dad adds plenty of quirkiness without being over the top. But even minor characters who only make one or two tiny appearances in the narrative are distinct, and they round out the novel perfectly.

At its heart, this novel is about being self-centered. Greg is very self-centered, even when he doesn't realize it or when he flat-out denies it (he has what he calls Excessive Modesty Hour, during which he refuses to be acknowledged for doing anything nice or being a decent person at all, and he knows this can be annoying, but he can't help it). And Andrews explores this narcissism brilliantly through Greg's avoidance of allying himself with any social group, his refusal to acknowledge the people in his life as friends, and ultimately, through Greg's attempt to create a film for Rachel as she's dying. The books resists preaching and the notion that every shitty experience is the perfect opportunity for character growth. Instead, the message seems to be more along the lines of, Shit happens. Sometimes it changes you. Sometimes you learn stuff from it. Sometimes you don't. Sometimes it just sucks. And Andrews does this better than other popular books that tackle the subject of teenage narcissism--like The Spectacular Now and Paper Towns. (He also doesn't cast Rachel in a manic-pixie-dream-girl archetype, which, just, THANK YOU.)

Basically--read this book. It's hilarious and sad, and I found it deeply relatable.

Here's the trailer for the movie. Ron Swanson plays Greg's dad. Enough said.

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