Book review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

When I first read the title of Jesse Andrews’s debut novel, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, alarm bells went off in my mind. I knew the famous saying of “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and yet I still had rather cynical predictions: media tropes of romanticized illness and a manic pixie dream girl showing the male protagonist how to live while in her dying days came to mind. I had read those sorts of stories before. All being said, I am happy to say that after reading “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, my cynicism was proven wrong. 

The book is told from the first-person perspective of Greg Gaines, an insecure, socially awkward high school senior. After learning that his former friend Rachel Kusher has leukemia, he starts to reconnect with her due to pressure from his mother. At first, Greg is not too keen on this idea, but as the book progresses, he and Rachel form a genuine friendship.

Greg Gaines, Earl Jackson, and Rachel Kushner are the three titular characters in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. As the narrator and protagonist, Greg displays  just enough unlikability and likability to be an engaging character. There are moments in the book, especially during his interactions with Rachel, where he becomes a self-centered jerk. Greg’s pessimistic outlook on social life, himself and college can be grating as well, but there is definitely something identifiable about Greg’s character, especially among a teenage audience. 

Rachel is, much to my surprise, not a dying manic pixie dream girl full of magical whimsy – she’s a relatively normal girl, and her struggles and fears of having leukemia are handled thoughtfully. Then there is Earl, Greg’s closest friend. During the course of the book, their relationship is tested due to the inclusion of Rachel in their lives. 

I really appreciated the tone of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”. The book addresses serious themes, ranging from low self esteem to dealing with death as a teenager, but it is still rife with humor. The awkward, humoring and self-aware tone helped the story feel down-to-earth and tasteful, which was much preferred over the heavy-handed, romanticized melodrama I expected. The author addresses the melodramatic romance the story could have been, too, which makes it all the more satisfying that Rachel and Greg have a platonic friendship throughout.  

Overall, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a nice blend of emotion and enjoyment. It works well as a grounded coming-of-age story, and it is an impressive debut novel.