Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland (proof) - Henry Page has never been in love. He fancies himself a hopeless romantic, but the slo-mo, heart palpitating, can't-eat-can't-sleep kind of love that he's been hoping for just hasn't been in the cards for him - at least not yet.
Instead, he's been happy to focus on his grades, on getting into a semi-decent college and finally becoming editor of his school newspaper. Then Grace Town walks into his first period class on the third Tuesday of senior year and he knows everything's about to change.
Grace isn't who Henry pictured as his dream girl; she walks with a cane, wears oversized boys' clothes, and rarely seems to shower. But when Grace and Henry are both chosen to edit the school paper, he quickly finds himself falling for her. It's obvious there's something broken about Grace, but it seems to make her even more beautiful to Henry, and he wants nothing more than to help her put the pieces back together again. And yet, this isn't your average story of boy meets girl. From Goodreads.
What a book Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland was! This is a story that is at once beautiful, complicated and frustrating, and it broke my heart.
It's difficult to know how to talk about this book without spoiling some major elements of the story. Grace has a past, a past that has to do with an accident that injured her leg and left her disabled and in need of a cane. She is an unhappy girl, with a heavy weight on her heart, but Henry is drawn to her despite her not always friendly demeanour. And Grace herself finds something in Henry that both alleviates her burden and increases it. She is just as equally drawn to Henry, but the reasons are unclear.
This is a story of first love, and, in some ways, it's more about Henry's experience of love than it is about the developing relationship between him and Grace. Told entirely from his point of view, I immediately fell in love with his voice; he's awkward, nerdy, and so funny, but also so earnest. Because of his awkwardness and his humour, it felt like a light book that would touch on some heavy issues - one that would ultimately be a feel-good, uplifting story. And though I finished the story still loving Henry and his voice, I couldn't have been more wrong.
It was so refreshing to read a story where it's the boy who is attracted to a girl with some problems. We tend to see the trope of a girl attracted to a troubled, broken boy, with her desire to fix him with her love too often. But that's not exactly what we have here; Henry doesn't want to fix her, exactly, he just wants to be with her, get to know her, have her open up to him. He can accept her past, and what she's been through, and understand that things take time to heal - he's ok with all of that, he just wants her to give him something back.
But Grace does have her issues, and... this is where it gets difficult to discuss, because of spoilers. What's happened to her was terrible, and heartbreaking, and, as an onlooker, I would say she isn't really in a good place to start anything with anyone. But it's because she's in a bad place that she does. Grace needs something, and Henry is so lovely to her. It just gets really complicated because Henry wants more from her than he should really ask, but Grace knows Henry want and deserves more, better even, and yet she can't bring herself to walk away.
The thing is, although Henry is asking for too much considering where Grace is emotionally, it's Grace who is keeping herself at this emotional stand-still. She's not moving forward, because she doesn't think she should move forward. She's torturing herself over something she was never able to control. So, really, Grace needs to sort herself out before even thinking about being with someone in anyway, but she's put herself in that position with Henry, and considering she's clutching on to her pain, you can understand why Henry would want more than she's capable of - because she's only incapable because she's holding herself back. And is using and hurting Henry in the process.
Our Chemical Hearts isn't a happy story. But as, as I said, this is almost more a story of Henry's experience of first love rather than about the romance between him and Grace, it's not a sad story either. It's a story of love, what it's like to experience it for the first time, how it affects you and changes you, and how love, for it's own sake, is always important, and always impactful, no matter the outcome. The conversations Henry has with his older, neurosurgeon sister, Sadie, on love and science and the body really beautiful. You would think talking about the science of love would reduce it to something cold and clinical, but it actually made love seem that much more wonderful.
I need to bring up Henry's friends here, Murray and Lola. They both bring some light relief to the story, but also much needed support for Henry, especially Lola. Murray is Australian, but makes a point of being as Australian as possible, using all the slang terms, and pretending to be Crocodile Dundee when drunk. Lola - a biracial (half-Haitian, half-Chinese) lesbian (hurrah for diversity!) - is strong and fierce; the humour from her comes when she's having a go at Henry and Murray and laying into them through frustration, but she also lays into them, Henry in particular, when they're too blinded by their feelings to realise what they're doing isn't good for them. And she's also very much in the "cruel to be kind" camp, and will do things she thinks are necessary to sort Henry out, even if it seems like going too far. I kind of loved her. I loved both Lola and Murray.
This isn't the easiest of books to read, and I felt so much for both Grace and Henry. I liked Grace on her own, as a person, but I didn't particularly like her when it came to how she treated Henry, but I didn't hate her either. She's just going through something really tough, and because of this, she doesn't make the best decisions. I felt for her, but I felt for Henry who had to deal with how Grace treated him. Our Chemical Hearts is, as I said, beautiful, complicated and heartbreaking, but more importantly, it's real.
ETA: Since writing this review, I have read a review of Our Chemical Romance by Alaina Leary on Disability on Kidlit, which discusses how the representation of disability and mental illness in this book aren't good representations. Please read their review, too.
Thank you to Hot Key Books for the proof.
Published: 4th October 2016
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Krystal Sutherland's Website