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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl

This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl - Esther Earl, Wayne Earl, Lori Earl, John Green

I read this book (actually, listened to it) hoping to glean insight into John Green's thought process while writing The Fault in Our Stars--a novel that I found to be expertly written on a sentence level, but which had a great many larger problems for me (click here for that review).


This Star Won't Go Out is a sort of memoir of the diagnosis, struggle to live with illness (thyroid cancer), death, and aftermath of the death of Esther Grace Earl--a young woman who might have lived on only in the memory of her family and a handful of friends, had she not become a bit of a celebrated nerdfighter and friend of John Green. Most of the material is taken from the journals and letters of Esther, and the thoughtful CaringBridge entries of her parents. There are some after-death recollections of her by other supporting players in her life (her friends from an online/Skype group who call themselves Catitude, real world friends, her doctor) which I thought were less successful for not being written in the moment. This ending "eulogy" section of the book is not as raw and meaningful as the real-time struggle to make sense of the truly nonsensical. 


I found the book interesting as a view into the mind of a kind, thoughtful but, let's face it,very young person, grappling with her mortality before she feels she has accomplished something. What a poignant realization that your lifetime wasn't long enough to kiss a boy, let alone change the world. But Esther faced her situation with, well, grace, and with a pretty unflagging good cheer that points to exceptional character. And her parents supported her beautifully. It makes the sections where Esther feels guilt at how her illness has shaped her family life, and her shame about not achieving anything all the more profound. (She mentions being "lazy" several times, making me think that she had been sick for so much of her young life that she no longer remembered or understood the difference between illness and lack of motivation.)


The samples of Esther's writing at the end went on too long. They show true potential and a good literary ear, and in that sense hint powerfully at her lost future, but they're not engaging or complete enough by themselves to be anything but a curiosity, so one sample might have been enough (although I understand her parents' desire to give a comprehensive view of her through all of her writing).


Does This Star Won't Go Out help to understand John Green's TFiOS? I think it does, in an odd way, because I think it hints at what Green was aiming for (but missed) with his novel. I know that John had already worked as an assistant chaplain in a pediatric hospital when he was younger, and had interacted with children with cancer before, and that by the time he met Esther he was already planning or actively working on a cancer novel. (Despite the fact that Green insists TFiOS is not a cancer novel, there's just no other way to think about it.) But in a video to his brother, Hank, after Esther died in August of 2010, Green talked about Esther in terms that mimic the way he talks about TFiOS, namely, that Esther was just Esther. She wasn't a dying person, she was alive, the way we're alive. She was wholly herself, imperfect and human and loving. Similarly, Green wants us to think that the point of TFiOS is that people with cancer are just the same as us. Since TFiOS was published in 2012, it's likely that he was still working on it when Esther died, and I think, in retrospect, this is the book Green wanted to write, was trying to write--a book that wasn't a cancer book, a book that was about how a person with cancer is a normal, living person--not an inspiration to you and me. The trouble is, Green didn't succeed in writing that book. He wrote a different book--a cancer book, about kids who inspire us to savor the life we have left. Which is honestly fine as the subject of a novel. I just think it's fascinating that he continues to pitch the idea he had, rather than the book he eventually wrote.


A note on the illustrations: I listened to this as an audiobook, so I missed seeing Esther's drawings and doodles. Audiobooks should come with some sort of password that allows you to look at images online after you've bought the recording. Listen up, producers!