‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ And Its Refreshing Take On Teenage Cancer
Cancer is very real, we all know that, just like we all know people die from cancer. That’s why the popularity of novels like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is so fertile. Through the poignancy of words, Green was able to show his readers that cancer isn’t just about death, it’s about life and love too.
However, what would happen if somebody made a novel that proposed the opposite effect? The 2012 novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews tries its hardest right up until the last pages to convince itself that the cliché of YA love is bullshit. It’s brutal, raw and extremely real; even if you don’t appreciate it at the time. It’s the John Green cancer story version for the non- believers and you should really consider reading it.
The opening words of the book narrated by teenager Greg Gaines are “I have no idea how to write this stupid book”, and this cynicism continues from start to finish. He’s our focal protagonist yet he’s the most dislikeable character of all (unlike Green’s charismatic array of male characters like Augustus Waters). Despite this, he’s a character worth investing in because he embodies the very real and honest trials and errors of being a teenager forced to face something he really doesn’t want to face.
The book follows him, his ‘co-worker’ Earl, and Rachel Kushner – the dying girl. However, the book never really follows Rachel straight forwardly, as with most YA reads about cancer victims. It instead follows Greg as he tries to make sense of Rachel’s disease, of his unwillingness to accept that she going is going to die, or even that she has become a crucial part of his maturation.
Rachel as a character is borderline average and meek, Earl curses a lot and is generally crude and vile, while Greg moans for ¾ of the book – it’s not exactly a trio made in heaven. Greg and Rachel are not Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace Lancaster. It is not a cancer love story. In fact, Greg’s first intention in becoming Rachel’s friend is only to impress his crush Madison – who said romance was dead?
Yet, whether we like it or not, we are enlightened to see through Greg’s eyes as his relationship with Rachel grows deeper. Most of the time he complains about his life and about not having real friendships, about his shitty movies that he has made over the years with Earl and the burden of having to visit Rachel. But beyond this is much more, because Rachel (who is inevitably going to die) teaches him something that he himself doesn’t really appreciate until the end of the novel – that life is about choosing to live, and moving the hell on.
Rachel Kushner; the subject of the novel, is there to feed a bigger cause and her cancer story surprisingly slips into the background. The cancer story is really about cancer-free Greg, who grows from being a selfish, friendless teenage asshole to being a little more compassionate teenage asshole. Jesse Andrews’ book is filled with tiny moments of pure, unadulterated honesty which makes it such a relatable read to teenagers and adults alike.
“It’s just too hard. Honey. Some things, no one can fight.” are the words uttered by Greg’s mother as they both sob over Rachel’s death, to which Greg replies:
It isn’t poetic like a John Green finale would be, but it reaffirms that Greg is human. He transforms into an accurate symbol for anybody who has ever felt the overwhelming confusion and pain over losing someone they care about.
Greg’s voice progresses throughout the book in a way that the reader doesn’t fully appreciate at first. You finish the book thinking, ‘wow, this kid is still a dick,’ and maybe he is a little bit. But for once, this young adult novel doesn’t end on a romantic note expressing some pretentious notion on the meaning of life – because teenagers these days are smart and they don’t need to be reminded of that. We are fed the subtle poignancy of life through Rachel’s impact on Greg. And this is achieved without any love triangles, or long drawn out extracts that reek of teenage cliche.
Some will weep, some will not. Some will throw it to the back of the book shelf; others will close it feeling a little more human.