It’s sometimes interesting how you’ll read certain novels relatively close to one another.
I recently picked up two young adult novels — one by an author I’d read before and enjoyed her work and another by an author who was new to me. I was remarkably surprised by one of them and remarkably disappointed by the other.
Reading Sarah Mlynowski’s Don’t Even Thing About It, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the third season Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, “Earshot.”
Both start with the premise of a character or characters developing ESP and the consequences of it. And I have to admit that I really feel like “Earshot” did a better job with the concept than Mlynowski’s novel did.
Don’t Even Thing About It centers on a group of teens in the same home room, most of whom develop psychic powers as the side effect of their annual flu shot. Some of the students use the powers to cheat on tests by sitting near the smartest person in the class while others use it to find out if that person they’ve always had a crush on feels the same way about them. Of course, there are some for whom having these new found powers is not good news because now everyone in a certain group of people knows your deepest, darkest secret — as in the case of Mackenzie, who has been cheating on her boyfriend Cooper with the hot guy who attends a private school in her building.
Like the Buffy episode this very clearly reminded me of (and there are other cases of genre shows featuring characters developing the ability to read minds), there is some amusement gained by certain characters getting inside the mind of the authority figures in their life. One girl learns just how attracted to each other her parents still really are, much to her chagrin. There’s also the case of Cooper, who in addition to being cheated on, finds out that his parents’ marriage is on the rocks due to his father’s cheating ways and his mother seeing a divorce lawyer.
The idea of being able to read one other people’s minds and the novelty of it wears off a bit quickly in Don’t Even Think About It. There’s a great deal of teen angst generated from the idea, but it starts to feel a bit repetitive by the third or fourth time we circle back to certain dilemmas or issues faced by the various characters. One intriguing side effect of the vaccine is that those who develop the ESP powers also have their eyes start to change purple.
And just as things are getting interesting as we get into the consequences and side effects of these powers, the novel comes to an abrupt end. It feels like things are just getting interesting or possibly being set up for a second novel or series of books. Whether or not these materialize remains to be seen.
What I keep coming back to is how I was a bit disappointed overall with Don’t Even Think About It. It has an interesting premise and the final few chapters lead me to believe there could have been more to it than the standard teen angst that I waded through in the middle half of the book. I’ve read other books by Mlynowski and enjoyed them for her authentic, realistic and humorous take on the young adult genre. Unfortunately, those assets aren’t as abundant in this novel.
On the other hand, there’s Jesse Andrews’ Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, which is a book I can’t recommend enough.
At the beginning of Jessie Andrew’s Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, first-person narrator Greg Gaines warns you that this won’t be your typical coming of age story in which he learns a valuable lesson from befriending a dying girl. Instead, Gaines argues that he’s learned nothing from the experience and, as he consistently points out during the narrative, he doesn’t know why anyone would necessarily want or need to read about the experience.
Gaines sees himself as the master of the social world that is high school. By not identifying himself with one particular group or clique, Greg believes he can rise above and float from group to group. His only friend is Earl, a fellow outcast whose home situation isn’t exactly ideal. The two share a tentative, though secret, friendship on the basis that they both enjoy more sophisticated movies than their peers and that they have created a few movies of their own.
At his mother’s prodding, Greg resumes his friendship with Rachel, a girl he knew from synagogue classes and who is now dying from leukemia. Greg has the ability to make her laugh (mostly by using self-deprecating humor) and Rachel’s mother hopes that Greg will cheer Rachel up and help her find a reason to endure the pain and challenges of chemotherapy.
One afternoon after getting inadvertently high, Greg brings Earl along to visit Rachel and the news gets out about their movies. Rachel wants to see them and while Greg is reluctant to share, Earl is willing to slip them to her without Greg’s knowledge — well, at least for a little while. Like his book that he’s writing, Greg doesn’t see why or how anyone (beyond his parents) would be interested in their movies, since according to him, they all suck.
Greg’s recounting of his friendship with Rachel and Earl as well as his senior year takes on not only first-person narration, but also bullet points and scripts. And while Greg may not realize what he’s doing by attempting to hold the world at arm’s length, Rachel and Earl do and repeatedly attempt to get him to engage more with those around him and stop being so hard on himself and others.
The world inhabited by Greg, Earl and Rachel is one that feels absolutely authentic. And while Greg warns us that he (and we) won’t learn anything from the experience, ultimately he (and we) do. Jesse Andrews has created a group of memorable, compelling characters in this book and I’ll be honest — I had a lump in my throat as I read the final chapters of this book.
It’s books like this one that show just how authors can take the conventions of the young adult genre and tweak them just a bit to make them something new, refreshing and memorable. Greg is a compelling, entertaining voice and one that will remain with you once you’ve finished reading the book. And while Greg says there is nothing to learn from his experience, don’t be shocked if you actually do take away some new insights and thoughts.
In the interest of full disclosure, I received a digital of ARC of Don’t Even Think About It from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I checked Me, Earl and the Dying Girl out of my local library after hearing good buzz about it on GoodReads.