Book Review: Our Chemical Hearts

First love is an epic disaster…

Henry Page has never been in love. The slo-mo, can’t-eat-can’t-sleep kind of love he’s been hoping for just hasn’t been on the cards – at least not yet. Henry’s too busy trying to get into a semi-decent college and become editor of his school newspaper, a dream three years in the making. The rest of his spare time he spends with his best friends, Lola and Murray, playing video games and advising them on their own sordid love lives.

Then he meets Grace Town, the elusive new girl in school, who wears oversized boys’ clothing, walks with a cane, rarely seems to shower, and is hiding secrets. She’s hardly who Henry expected his dream girl to be, but when the two are chosen to edit the paper together, sparks fly. After all this time, Henry’s about to learn firsthand just how disastrous the road to first love can be – and that sometimes it’s the detours that end up mattering much more.

I believe in signs. And the fact Krystal Sutherland’s debut novel Our Chemical Hearts caught my eye in bookstores across two continents was surely a sign I should read it.

Finally, I picked up a copy from my favourite bookstore and devoured this YA gem in a matter of days. Like the blurb says, Our Chemical Hearts is a boy-meets-girl story but with heart-wrenching twists. It deals with existentialism and first loves, post-traumatic stress and guilt, teenage parties and best friends, dreams and reality. A lot to pull off but Sutherland sure as heck does it (I’ve picked up American-ness from the book).

The story is told by seventeen-year old writer (and kinda nerd) Henry Page, a likeable and believable narrator. Creating this kind of character is no mean feat as so many books either have a protagonist who is as dull as a bag of hair (*cough* Bella Swan *cough*) or so quirky it seems very unrealistic that anyone, especially a teenager, would have such a strong sense of who they are. Henry, however, is different. Yes, he has unusual interests and avid hobbies, and yes his speech is strewn with as many pop-culture references as a Gilmore Girl’s, but he still seems to be figuring himself out. While the supporting characters are defined by qualities such as ‘total Australian-ness’ or ‘rebel teen turned bad-ass neuroscientist mum’, Henry is more like the teenaged reader of this novel.

(P.S. the supporting characters are great. Henry’s parents are eccentric but not to the point of ridiculousness, his best friend Lola kicks booty, and there’s a fish named after Ricky Martin.)

It seems every good YA novel has a handful of motifs at the core, curiosities or everyday items that are probably designed so that, when encountered in real-life, evoke memz of the novel. Our Chemical Hearts is no exception. While frequent references to The Strokes will appeal to the many fans of Albert Hammond Jr’s hair, the poetry and Japanese style of art mentioned throughout are likely to prompt intrigue and further research. See, reading is fun AND educational!

But if you take away all the whimsy (including  an abandoned train station with fish swimming around inside that is literally begging to be brought to the big screen), there’s a gripping tragedy at the core of Our Chemical Hearts. Grace Town and Henry Page’s love story is a complex one; there’s no right or wrongs, just many, many ifs and maybes. There’s a heartbreaking secret their relationship pivots around, one of trauma, guilt and a desire to heal. For fans of the “WHY CAN’T THEY JUST BE TOGETHER” nature of John Green’s Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, this read will hit you right in the feels.

Our Chemical Hearts is a must-read. The characters are unique but believable, so fleshed out it’s hard to believe their conversations and in-jokes are fictional, the world they live in is as complete as ours, and the love story is sensitively rendered. It’s reignited my love for YA so I guess all that’s left to say is: thank you, Universe

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