REVIEW: “Dear Evan Hansen” by Val Emmich

51t4hrr2yllI’m on the record as not being a particularly big fan of the musical Dear Evan Hansen. I always found Evan to be a super unlikable character (what with the whole lying to a grieving family for the entirety of the musical thing) and so that made it a bit hard to fully connect with the, admittedly interesting, plot. But my bigger problem with the musical was the songs. I just didn’t like them. They didn’t work for me. They didn’t feel like they were serving the story and they just sorta brought everything down. So, when I saw that Hachette Book Group was publishing a novelization of the musical, I figured I’d give it a shot. I did like the plot of the musical, and novels often make even the most unlikable character sympathetic in ways that more visual mediums aren’t able to. I’m happy to report that while Val Emmich’s novelization of the musical still has that one pretty big flaw in relation to Evan as a character, the novel is far more enjoyable than the musical is.

From the show’s creators comes the groundbreaking novel inspired by the hit Broadway show Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen, Today’s going to be an amazing day and here’s why…

When a letter that was never meant to be seen by anyone draws high school senior Evan Hansen into a family’s griefover the loss of their son, he is given the chance of a lifetime: to belong. He just has to stick to a lie he never meant to tell, that the notoriously troubled Connor Murphy was his secret best friend.

Suddenly, Evan isn’t invisible anymore–even to the girl of his dreams. And Connor Murphy’s parents, with their beautiful home on the other side of town, have taken him in like he was their own, desperate to know more about their enigmatic son from his closest friend.As Evan gets pulled deeper into their swirl of anger, regret, and confusion, he knows that what he’s doing can’t be right, but if he’s helping people, how wrong can it be?

No longer tangled in his once-incapacitating anxiety, this new Evan has a purpose. And a website. He’s confident. He’s a viral phenomenon. Every day is amazing. Until everything is in danger of unraveling and he comes face to face with his greatest obstacle: himself.

A simple lie leads to complicated truths in this big-hearted coming-of-age story of grief, authenticity and the struggle to belong in an age of instant connectivity and profound isolation.

This book is a really good, engaging, quick read. It takes a little bit of time to fully hook you into the story, but once it does, you won’t want to put it down. There are two major things about this novel that make it better than the musical, for me. The first is the way the story is told. Emmich utilizes a first-person point of view for the prose, literally taking us into Evan’s mind as he experiences the events of the story. The musical does this, too, to a degree, but a visual medium can never take us as deeply into the mind of a character as a novel can. While many of the things that make Evan so unlikable (and unrelatable) to me are still present in the book, they’re softened a bit by the prose. Emmich does a great job at capturing just how debilitating anxiety can be. How it can feel like something pressing against your chest so hard that it feels like you can’t breathe. How you can slip so far down a spiral just by doing (or thinking about) one small thing. While I still can’t remotely identify (or sympathize) with Evan’s actions in the novel as they relate to literally lying to Connor’s family, the prose does help you see his point-of-view and understand why and how he’s gotten himself into this situation. The other major thing about the novel that elevates it above its source material is the inclusion of a series of interludes from Connor’s point-of-view. They’re all set after his death and feature Connor witnessing and reacting to various things in the novel. We find out a lot about Connor through this selection of short interludes. They make up maybe 10% of the book, but they’re honestly the best parts of the book. Connor is way more likable than Evan is and it’s so nice getting a brief insight into his mind, even if it’s after he’s dead.

Like I’ve mentioned, the novel still has a lot of the problems that the musical has. Thankfully, next to nothing related to the songs from the musical is present in the novel. There are a few bits where I think they’re quoting or referencing a lyric, but they make sense in the context of the novel and it’s not at all distracting. However, the bigger problem is Evan Hansen. While I (and many others) can relate to his anxiety, his feelings of loneliness, and a lot of his other characteristics, the part that always loses me (and many others) is the way his lie is portrayed. Both the stage show and the novel say his lie is an awful thing, but it seems like they never wanna actually prove that. He’s not punished at all for it (though the epilogue of the novel does show how the aftermath of his confession has eaten away at his mind some) and so it rings a bit hollow. Yes, he loses Zoe and the comfort of the Murphy family, but he also gains his relationship with his mother back and essentially loses nothing else. The musical and the novel both paint his lie as something that ultimately brought the Murphy family closer together, which, sure, I can see how it did that, but wow does that seem to be a watering-down of how utterly traumatizing it must have been too. It’s really hard to root for a lead character who spends the entirety of the novel literally lying to the grieving family of a dead kid that he’s pretending he was friends with.

While I feel like there are elements of the musical (and the novel) that do a lot of good for mental health awareness, I feel like Evan’s actions really reflect negatively on those with similar disorders to his. Most people with anxiety and/or depression would never do something like he did. Most people with anxiety and/or depression just do their best to get by, mostly trying to be kind to others and all that jazz. I can see why people identify with Evan’s struggles because aside from the whole lying to a grieving family thing, his struggles are really relatable. I just worry that the fact that Evan never gets any kind of real comeuppance for his actions is a bad message that overshadows the really good message of the story. Yes, nobody should ever feel alone. Everyone should feel like life is worth living and that things will get better. Much of this novel (and the musical it’s based on) are devoted to that idea, and the idea of the Connor Murphy Project is probably the best thing to come out of Evan’s lie. The thing is, it’s an equally important message that you shouldn’t do half the stuff Evan does in this story. You shouldn’t lie to a family for months. He should have come clean immediately before he did so much damage. He should’ve been punished in some way for it. Or, at least, more time should have been devoted to him dealing with the aftermath of coming clean about it so that that point could have been gotten across. I mean, I’m not looking to see his life get ruined by this (as I think that would also dilute the nice message of “things getting better” that the novel and musical are trying to present), but I do think there should have been more of an acknowledgment as to how awful what Evan did was. As it is, it just sort of feels like the novel (and the musical) is waving it away, trying to whitewash it as much as possible so that Evan still feels relatable and not like an awful person. But here’s the thing: if you do an awful thing, it’s not excused by the fact that you have a mental illness. The novel (and the musical) seem to try to excuse Evan’s behavior with his anxiety, but it doesn’t work that way. I wish that aspect was better communicated through the novel.

At the end of the day, Dear Evan Hansen is still a really good story. Yes, the main character is super unlikable and does a pretty despicable thing (and is never really punished for it), but the journey of the story is a really interesting one. Even with all its problems, the book is still a really good examination of what living with anxiety is like. The additions it makes to its source material are welcome ones and make the story far more engaging than it was on stage. It’s not a difficult read and Evan does feel like a real person, which is always important for these first-person YA novels to pull off. If you liked the musical, you’ll like the book; it takes everything that was good about the musical and makes it better. If you didn’t like the musical, I’d encourage you to give the book a try anyway. You still might not like it, but, on the flip side, you might end up like me, someone who doesn’t like or sympathize with Evan at all and really dislikes the music from the musical, but enjoys the plot of the musical enough to really get into the book. It’s super flawed and leaves a lot to be desired, but I enjoyed it well enough.

3.5 wands out of 5.

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