Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland (YA)

Reviewed by Annabel

chemical-heartsHenry is seventeen and he’s not had a real girlfriend yet. This year, there’s a new girl in class, moved from a school across town – and she’s different.

I always thought the moment you met the great love of your life would be more like the movies. Not exactly like the movies, obviously, with the slow-mo and the hair blowing in the breeze and the swelling instrumental soundtrack. But I at least thought there would be something, you know? A skipped beat of the heart. A tug at your soul where something inside you goes, “Holy shit. There she is. Finally, after all this time, there she is.”

There was none of that when Grace Town walked into Mrs. Beady’s afternoon drama class ten minutes late on the second Tuesday of senior year. Grace was the type of person who made an impression on any room she walked into, but not the kind of reasons that generate instant and undying affection.

Grace typically wears baggy boy’s clothes, she looks unhealthy and walks with a cane. When offered the joint-editorship of the school magazine with Henry she initially refuses saying she’s ‘given up writing’ and goes. Henry pursues her, and something he says persuades her, for his teacher thanks him for getting her to accept the next day.

Inhabiting the magazine office, he gets to know Grace a bit better – but only a bit. Some days she’s friendly, others she’s cold and standoffish. Needless to say Henry begins to fall for her big-time. Sometimes, it appears that she might like him back… but Grace has baggage, tons of it, and it’s one step forward, two steps back often in their relationship, if you can call it that. Grace seems to find it very difficult to let go and Henry is perplexed at how to get her to open up a little, to get behind the air of mystery and martyrdom that she puts up to fend people off.

Will Grace be able to love Henry as he loves her? Will they get together before college beckons? Or will it forever be a case of she loves me, she loves me not?

This is a character-driven novel. Henry and Grace star – and both are drawn brilliantly and sympathetically, particularly Henry as narrator. Fans of John Green will enjoy this novel a lot. I’ve only read Paper Towns, but I could see Quentin and Margo from that novel in Henry and Grace at times. The similarities are particularly strong between Quentin and Henry, both of whom are sensitive, slightly geeky and just a little obsessive in hoping to mend the object of their affections.

The author doesn’t stick to straight storytelling. We’re party to Henry and Grace’s late night text conversations and they don’t jar at all. Henry quite likes a list too, but the section where he woos Grace with a Powerpoint presentation on why she should go out with him was great.

Behind every teen narrator/protagonist are their best friends, and Henry’s – the always happy Australian, Muz and his next-door neighbour Lola, (‘a self-described “diversity triple threat”: half Chinese on her dad’s side, half Haitian on her mom’s, and one hundred percent gay’) are fabulous support, as is Henry’s older sister Sadie – the wild child of their family, in the later chapters.

Whilst the main narrative is, of course, about first love and friendship, the story seeks to emphasize that no relationships are perfect, that love may not be forever. But the same applies to heartbreak, it is OK to hurt, but it is also OK to love again. This is a well-written debut novel which manages to get the balance between funny and bittersweet absolutely right. I loved it.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Krystal Sutherland, Our Chemical Hearts (Hot Key, 2016). 978-1471405846, 320 pp., paperback original.

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