Monday, October 03, 2016

Book Review: OUR CHEMICAL HEARTS

Title: Our Chemical Hearts
Author: Krystal Sutherland
Publisher: GP Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Pages: 313






Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland is an unlikely story of an attraction at first sight that blossoms very quickly into love.

Unlikely because Grace Town is of average height, and average build and average attractiveness . And yet our first person narrator Henry Isaac Page knows that she is the great love of his life.


To make things worse, she dresses up in what appear to be hand-me-down men’s clothes, many sizes too big for her; looks unclean and unhealthy and even stinks, and walks with a cane. Even so, in the absence of slow-mo, no breeze, no soundtrack, and definitely no skipped heartbeats, he knows she is the one.


Despite being 17, Henry has never been touched romantically. He has always worked hard at school to keep his grades up and to get into a decent college. But his great ambition is to be the editor of the school newspaper, a goal for which he has worked hard.

Henry and his friends check out Grace’s Facebook page and discover that she was once lithe and beautiful. What could have happened just three months ago to break her like this?

At first Henry wants Grace because he senses her brokenness. A small part of her soul was cracked. Unconsciously, he dreams of being the one of putting her together, making her whole again. Not unlike Kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of mending something broken by filling the cracks with gold.


But Grace is too broken for him to heal, too broken even for KIntsukuroi, and his unyielding passion for her breaks him a little in the process. 

When the three friends, with Sadie, stalk Grace at the local cemetery, they are shocked to see Grace in an expression of grief, sedated by the stillness that comes with seeing an intensely private moment that doesn’t belong to you.


Henry knows that his attraction to Grace is something bigger than he can comprehend, but her on-off attitude worries him. When she is drunk, Grace reciprocates Henry’s love, but denies it when she is sober. Indifferent to him for days, she suddenly turns intimate for a while, then turns off again. But even in the midst of the intimacy, she seems surprised to see Henry, as if she were expecting somebody else.

And then he learns that she is hurting from the death of her boyfriend, Dom Sawyer, in a car crash, the crash that left her with the limp.

Henry finds himself going to seed, disappointing teachers and failing to bring out the school paper on time. Love of the kind that Grace and Dom had feels eternal and cosmic, and when it goes out, it leaves pain behind.

What I liked about this book was that the supporting characters are also likeable. There is Henry’s sister Sadie, who is 12 years older than him, and a single mother and neuroscientist. While at school, she used to strike terror in the hearts of the teachers and students alike. I liked the character of Sadie, a little for her rebelliousness, but even more because she saved people’s lives and looked at her tiny son like he was made of bright diamonds, pancakes in bed on Sunday morning, and a thunderstorm after a seven-year drought.


Henry’s best friends are Australian émigré Murray Finch and the partly Chinese, partly Haitian Lola Leung. The sayings that Murray comes up with are hilarious. There’s no point pushing shit uphill with a rubber fork on a hot day.


I liked Henry because he wants to be a writer. He claims to have a built-in radar that tells him where a comma needs to go in a sentence.


Lola’s statement, Very few good things come out of sentences that begin with ‘Most girls’ reminded me of the biases that spill out through our words.


I must say that reading this book felt very disjointed because chapter 6 was missing, and I couldn’t read the text messages and FB posts that the characters sent to each other. That was a huge drawback, since I missed large portions. The gaps showed as blocks of grey colour on the page. While it didn’t affect my understanding of the plot narrative, I did lose out on the banter between the characters.

The author uses a lot of clichés, but in a manner that calls attention to them and makes you laugh. When Sadie, Lola, Murray and Henry are stalking Grace by the cemetery, Lola calls it the dead center of town. When Murray says, I hear people are dying to get in, Henry adds, I hear everyone inside is pretty stiff.


When Grace and Henry adopt a fish for as a mascot for their newspaper, Grace tells Henry, He has your eyes and Henry replies, He has your fins and gills.


Murray is funny in his pretend-play of engaging sleuth Madison Carlson for spying on his girlfriend.

So many Laugh-out-Loud moments like this.

The author also did a fine job with the pop culture references. I couldn’t get all of them, but the ones that I did were well executed.


The title refers to Sadie’s theory that we are all just chemical hearts, that love is a result of chemical reactions in the brain which either last or fizzle out. And if it gets over, we must start again because How does a novelist start a new book when the last one is finished? How does an injured athlete start training again from the beginning?


There was another theory that I found slightly difficult to grapple with at the beginning, but the longer I thought about it, the more sense it made. Love doesn’t need to last a lifetime for it to be real. You can’t judge the quality of a love by the length of time it lasts. Everything dies, love included. Sometimes it dies with a person, sometimes it dies on its own.



I found the ending perfect. It isn’t a conventional happy ending, but it does teach the value of detachment. I would have been disappointed to see otherwise.


(I got an ARC from First to read.)



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