“I learned absolutely nothing from Rachel’s leukemia,” this book’s protagonist starts off in its in-universe foreword, and I grinned and said, “YES! This is going to be good.”
Cancer books so often frame us pediatric oncology patients as Tragic Figures who Die Beautifully while teaching people Important Lessons. I can’t tell you how marvelous it is to read one that tries for none of that.
Rachel’s cancer does not imbue anyone or anything with deeper meaning. It is not beautiful. Not even tragically beautiful. There’s nothing good about her cancer — it just sucks. It sucks, and it’s unfair, and she’s going to die, and she wasn’t anybody special or extraordinary or wise, except in the way that everyone’s life is unique and worthy and has meaning, and somehow that makes it suck more. She’s not some deeply philosophical being who finds profundity in her death. She’s just a girl, a very real girl, who likes posters of hot movie stars and frilly pillows and has big teeth and is sometimes awkward and laughs a lot, and is dying. And it sucks.
And I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to have a book that acknowledges this — that there’s not some greater purpose or meaning in cancer. That it hits you and you don’t suddenly start spouting (as the book phrases it), “sugary paradoxical single-sentence-paragraphs that you’re supposed to think are deep because they’re in italics.” Life keeps going on and being life, except with the extra added twist that there’s this stupid disease eating you from the inside out and fucking you up, and there’s no higher meaning in that.
(When I got my second cancer diagnosis a close friend of mine emailed with, “Total balls . . . There’s not much else to say,” and I thought that was the perfect response. Because there really isn’t much else to say.)
The story of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews starts out with Greg’s — our protagonist’s — mother forcing him to reconnect with the recently-diagnosed Rachel, a girl he used to hang out with in Hebrew school and whom he briefly dated years ago to make another girl jealous. Greg has no interest in trying to befriend Rachel, and she has zero interest in visiting with him.
They eventually start hanging out a bit, and at first it’s exceedingly awkward. Their somewhat forced friendship never grows into anything earth-shattering, but it does eventually achieve the level of something real . . . before Rachel passes away from her leukemia.
The book practically makes a point of turning every single “child with CANCER! Deep! Meaningful! Profound!” trope completely on its head. To wit:
- Rachel gets no grand love story (either platonic or romantic). She and Greg do develop a sort of friendship, but it’s not even a kindred spirit friendship for the ages — it’s a friendship that means something, yes, but not everything. Far from it, in fact.
So if this were a normal book about a girl with leukemia, I would probably talk a shitload about all the meaningful things Rachel had to say as she got sicker and sicker, and also probably we would fall in love and have some incredibly fulfilling romantic thing and she would die in my arms. But I don’t feel like lying to you. She didn’t have meaningful things to say, and we definitely didn’t fall in love. (p. 196)
- Rachel doesn’t become a wizard who is able to solve everyone’s problems and make them see the light just because of her dying state. She tries to get Greg and his friend Earl both to promise to go to film school and pursue their movie-making hobby professionally, but it doesn’t really work. After her death, when Greg considers doing as she asked, Earl calls him out on it and tells him he has to live his life for himself, not for things Rachel said.
Later, when Greg goes back to considering film as a career, it is very clearly his own decision, born of an evolution that includes everything in his life — including Rachel, but including everything and everyone else around him too, and probably Earl most of all.
“This is the first . . . negative thing that has happened to you in your life. And you can’t be overreacting to it and making big-ass expensive decisions based on it. I’m just saying. People die. […] But you gotta live your own life.” (Earl to Greg when he considers letting Rachel’s death affect his life decisions, p. 288)
- Rachel is not tough. She’s not a good little soldier who’s an inspiration. In fact, she eventually gives up.
The fact that Rachel stops her treatment is not portrayed as an admirable decision, but nor is it portrayed as a mistake. It’s shown without judgment — this is the decision she and her family came to, and that’s their business.
She was never much of a fighter. She’s always been a quiet girl, just so sweet, never wanting to fight […] I raised a girl who’s sweet, and . . . and lovely, but not tough. (Rachel’s mother to Greg, p. 226-7)
- Rachel’s death is not framed as depriving the world of someone extraordinary — except that makes it all the more so. We rail at the waste of losing her and everything that makes her her, not of losing some Person of Destiny with a nebulous higher calling.
[…] it made me so bitter and fucking angry […] she was just going to be lost. Just as if she had never been around to say things and laugh at people and have favorite words that she liked to use and ways of fidgeting with her fingers when she got antsy and specific memories that flashed through her head when she ate a certain food or smelled a certain smell like, I dunno, how maybe honeysuckle made her think of one particular summer day playing with a friend or whatever the fuck, or how rain on the windshield of her mom’s car used to look like alien fingers to her, or whatever, and as if she had never had fantasies about stupid Hugh Jackman or visions of what her life was going to be like in college or a whole unique way of thinking about the world that was never going to be articulated to anyone. (p. 278)
- When Rachel dies, Greg’s mother apologizes for pushing him to be friends with Rachel after her diagnosis. They’re sitting in the hospital, both crying, and his mom apologizes. It’s such a terrifically honest and human moment.
(Compare this to The Fault In Our Stars and its repeated affirmation that “loving a grenade” is always worth it.)
- Rachel dies, and Greg gets past it. So does everyone else. Life moves on.
Rachel’s death is an awful, awful day, but that day ends.
There’s something magnificently healthy in this to me.
There’s nothing grand or meaningful about Rachel’s death. Cancer didn’t make her see life more clearly. It didn’t make anyone around her discover revolutionary truths about themselves. She was not a person of stunning intellect or great beauty or shining destiny — she was a girl who would have liked to keep hanging out with her friends and crushing on Hugh Jackman.
She was amazing.
There’s one other thing I particularly love about this book, and that’s how realistically it portrays people’s reactions to cancer — starting with Greg’s mother’s do-gooding and through Greg’s utter awkwardness and Madison’s well-meaning charity. And Earl. I want to talk about Earl for a moment.
How people treated me as a child with cancer is one of the pieces of the experience I am most acutely conscious of. When you’re a kid with cancer, everyone cares. They all care so freakin’ much until you want to spit in their eyes when they swoop in and ask — nay, DEMAND — how you’re doing. It’s awful.
But then there are the people who are no-bullshit-sincere about it, and it’s hard to quantify what makes them okay but they are, they’re more than okay, they’re incredible. I think it’s something about seeing us as people rather than Cancer Kids, but those were the people I loved more than I can say, more than they might ever know. Those were the people whose cards I kept and whose visits I wanted. And Earl is one of those people toward Rachel, those no-bullshit-sincere people, and I don’t know how Jesse Andrews did it, but I just want to give him a medal for nailing that.
(I love everything about Earl, by the way. Angry, obscene, smack-talking cigarette-smoking Earl, whom Greg constantly acknowledges is a better person than he is — and he’s right.)
I wish more people understood cancer this way.
How I would rate this book:
Overall: 4 stars (My only large criticism is that Greg’s narration got on my nerves at times, particularly his insecurity and misogyny, but Earl’s speech 3/4 of the way through calling him out on exactly these things knocked things so far out of the park that it pulls this up from a 3.5 to a solid 4.)
Portrayal of childhood cancer: Excellent