Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland bills itself as “kind of” a love story, and also “not your average story of boy meets girl.” The novel starts off with Henry Page telling readers about how he expected to first fall in love, and then introducing us to his unexpected first love, Grace.
I was hooked by the premise that the love interest, Grace Town, walks with a cane and wears male-coded clothing. I’m a cane user, and I went into this book with a lot of hope. I wasn’t a cane user in high school, but I have been disabled my entire life, and have always combated internalized ableism, especially about the use of mobility aids.
Although I could tell from the beginning that the novel was going to make Grace into a tragic character, I was hopeful that it would still find a way to subvert tropes and harmful representation of characters with disabilities.
Unfortunately, Our Chemical Hearts did not live up to my hope. The book—and Henry’s—characterization and descriptions of Grace do disabled readers a disservice in more ways than one.
Several times in the book, Henry obsesses over Grace’s limp and cane use, wondering why she uses a cane and thinking about whether he can ask her. This is somewhat understandable. Almost every disabled person I know has had an awkward encounter with an acquaintance or a stranger that’s along the lines of, “What happened to you?” That doesn’t make it okay, but I would’ve been fine with the story if this plot point was about Henry realizing that it isn’t cool to obsess over why disabled people exist. The storyline, instead, presents his obsession with Grace and her disability uncritically, leaving readers to believe that it’s okay that he’s so persistent in understanding and “fixing” her.
Henry also frequently refers to Grace’s appearance as “looking like a heroin addict,” which I found very off-putting. I’m not sure if the author was doing it on purpose, but it seemed almost like she wanted readers to find Grace unappealing and unattractive—so we’d be even more endeared to Henry for daring to like her. Wow, he likes a girl who uses a cane, wears non-gender-conforming clothing, rarely showers, and seems to have a mental illness? He must be fabulous. The way he refers to Grace is also problematic because it rests on the assumption that heroin addicts are inherently disgusting, which further plays into ableism, and this is never criticized or called out in the text. Henry simply continues to refer to Grace in these terms without learning from it.
In addition to this, Grace’s disability and her mental health issues are treated as plot devices; they’re treated as reasons why she and Henry can’t be together, and they’re supposed to be shocking mysteries that are revealed to the reader to garner our sympathy. Midway through the book, we learn that Grace and her ex-boyfriend, Dom, were in a car accident that killed him and seriously injured her leg, causing her to limp and walk with a cane. She hasn’t been able to drive a car since the accident, although she is willing to ride as a passenger. She also reads as having severe PTSD and survivor’s guilt from the incident, compounded by her grief over losing Dom.
As a trauma survivor with PTSD, I thought Grace’s thoughts and actions were somewhat realistic. Although I haven’t lost a significant other as Grace has, I lost my mom in a very traumatic setting after watching her have a seizure. For a while after her death, I dealt with survivor’s guilt because I was the one who found her and helped call 9-1-1. I wore her clothes and had an altar set up in my room in memorial of her, much like Grace—who moved in with Dom’s parents and lives in his old room—keeps Dom’s room exactly as he had it before his death.
There is also a scene in the book where Henry catches Grace struggling with running track, and Grace hits herself repeatedly in the leg with her cane. I was torn about this scene. On the one hand, it fits in with her survivor’s guilt and PTSD, since she is clearly blaming herself for having lived through the experience while Dom didn’t, and she wants to punish herself physically. But it also screams of ableism, as we hear about it from the non-disabled narrator’s perspective and not from Grace’s own words. If we were getting Grace’s perspective on these issues, the reader would still be dealing with Grace’s internalized ableism, but we might also come to understand why she feels this way and see her combat those feelings.
Despite the realism involved, I felt like Grace’s mental health was treated as a plot device. Grief is a deeply personal, complicated thing, especially when the person grieving also has PTSD from the event, but Grace doesn’t really seek professional help for this. Henry doesn’t really offer steadfast support, either. Most of his inner thoughts about Grace’s mental health are that she’d be a bad influence on him, that she’s incapable of loving him in return, and that she’s “no fun” when she’s having one of her “Bad Days.” She’s referred to many times in the book as “broken,” even as “too broken.” We don’t get a full, nuanced picture of what it’s like to love someone who is dealing with grief or mental illness.
This all seemed to have a purpose in Sutherland’s narrative. Similar to John Green’s Paper Towns, it reads as though she was trying to make the point that you can’t love the idea of a person, and that Henry didn’t really see Grace for who she is. In execution, however, the story did more harm than good. At the end of the story, Grace’s limp becomes less noticeable, she stops walking with a cane, she starts driving to school, and she starts wearing some of her own clothing. All of this happens without any professional help (to the reader’s knowledge) and because Henry is the narrator, we don’t learn anything about how Grace is feeling about it. We also never really learn what caused these changes. It simply happens after Grace tells Henry that the two of them can’t be together, because he doesn’t see her as a person, only as an idea, and because she is still grieving over Dom.
This is portrayed as a positive ending for Grace, despite the fact that we don’t really learn anything about why it happened or how she feels about it. There are, of course, real cases where people are disabled by a car accident and only have to walk with a cane for a short period of time, such as the case in Tess Sharpe’s Far From You. In Our Chemical Hearts, however, we never see nor hear about Grace going to physical therapy or getting any kind of physical or psychological medical treatment, both of which would have been critical to her healing after this trauma. It’s almost like a “magical cure” scenario, except the magic cure in this case is Grace realizing that she can’t use Henry to fix her and run away from her trauma, and she magically moves on by herself instead.
In the end, Grace is a character who remains largely a mystery to the reader. Instead of serving as a nuanced and complicated portrayal of PTSD, trauma, and disability, her mental health and disability serve as plot twists and reasons why she can’t be with Henry.