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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, written by Jesse Andrews. Amulet, Abrams. 2012. $8.95 ages 14 and up

"Rachel and Earl were clearly not hitting it off. I had to do something. Unfortunately, I had no idea what that thing would be. The silence grew. Rachel continued staring at the ground. Earl started sighing. It was the opposite of a party. It was about the least fun social situation imaginable. If terrorists had burst into the room and tried to suffocate us in hummus, it would have been an improvement."

In this humorous and very inventive novel for young adults, we first meet Greg Gaines:

"I do actually want to say one other thing before we get started with this horrifyingly inane book. You may have already figured out that it's about a girl who had cancer. So there's a chance you're thinking, "Awesome, this is going to be a wise and insightful story about love and death and growing up. It is probably going to make me cry literally the entire time. I am so fired up right now." If that is an accurate representation of your thoughts, you should probably try to smush this book into a garbage disposal and then run away. Because here's the thing: I learned absolutely nothing from Rachel's leukemia. In fact I probably became stupider about life because of the whole thing."

It is easy to see that he is a self-deprecating teen; that only works in his favor, for me as a reader. While he constantly reminds us that he is not worth the space he takes up on this earth in his quest to be a writer, he proves time and again that he is worthy of our admiration and sympathy. I think he's great.

That being said, it is his final year of high school and he is shamed (by his mother) into spending time with Rachel, as she has been diagnosed with cancer and Greg's mother feels that she needs a friend. It is not what Greg wants to do, but he reluctantly agrees. In between the visits that we are witness to between the two of them, we learn much about Greg and his best friend Earl. They have been making movies since fifth grade, and are none too pleased with the results. They won't allow anyone to see them, and are happy with that decision. It is an unwritten law that they will not be shared.

Greg is a confessor, always alerting his audience to the way he deals with high school, and the hateful place he has found it to be:

"But here's the thing. There's a solution to that problem: Get access to all of them. I know. I know. That sounds insane. But it's exactly what I did. I didn't join any group outright, you understand. But I got access to all of them. The smart kids, the rich kids, the jocks, the stoners. The band kids, the theater kids, the church kids, the gothy dorks. I could walk into any group of kids, and not one of them would bat an eye. Everyone used to look at me and think, "Greg! He's one of us."

His best friend is Earl, and it is a most unusual friendship. Earl is a filmmaker, too. That is where any similarity ends. He is African American, he smokes continually, he is part of a very dysfunctional and non-supportive family, he is short, and he is crude (but, that crudeness will get some of the heartiest laughs in the book), and he is a good friend. I have great admiration for Earl.

When things don't seem to be going well for Rachel, despite her chemo treatments, Earl lets her watch their films (without Greg's permission) which is a definite blip in their relationship. Rachel loves the films. This leads to attempts to make a film that might be meaningful to her, as her cancer progresses and things don't look good. Greg and Earl are tasked to make that movie, and have great difficulty coming up with a workable idea. After they have made a number of tries, they try something new. Here is what Earl has to say to her in the film:

"I admire a lot of things about you. I admire how smart you are, how perceptive and observant. But, uh. What I'm really in awe of, is your, uh, I don't know how to put this. I guess, your patience. If it was me, I would be angry, and miserable, and, and hurtful, and just terrible to be around. And you've been so strong throughout, and so patient, even when things aren't going right, and I'm in awe of that. And you've make me feel, uh, blessed."

When you get to know Earl and his capacity to care, you will not be surprised at that speech. For Greg, it is an impossible act to follow, especially given his lack of feelings for Rachel which is a great embarrassment to him.

Did I tell you it had heart? It does, and it has so much more than that. I think you should read it!

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