Our Chemical Hearts

Book cover for the YA novel "Our Chemical Hearts"

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Book Review

Our Chemical Hearts, though published back in 2016, made its way to the big screen earlier this year with stars Austin Abrams and Lili Reinhart. And when I reviewed the Chemical Hearts movie for Plugged In, I wrote that for all its lessons “about teenage love and heartbreak, it’s not a film that most parents would want their teens to see.” And arguably, I could say the same for the book.

Main character Henry learns a lot about himself from his relationship with Grace. He learns that he is drawn to broken people. He learns that he can be a bit jealous. And he also learns that he has an unrealistic view of love.

He wanted the love that would last a lifetime—a love like his parents had. But what he didn’t realize was that his parents weren’t actually in love anymore. Sure, they’re still best friends and they stuck together to give him a stable childhood, but the minute Henry learns the truth, they stop pretending. And Henry has to face the facts that not all loves can be perfect and last forever.

This is a reality he has to face in his relationship with Grace. The truth of the matter is that Henry isn’t Grace’s one true love. Dom was. And the fact that Dom was taken from her so tragically makes it difficult to say whether she’ll ever stop loving him, even if she does manage to heal from his death.

Putting teenage melodramatics and heartbreak aside, the book is filled with content that many parents may not want their children to read. Characters have sex and talk about sex. The profanities in the book are far worse and far more frequent than the ones in the film. We hear some graphic descriptions about Dom’s death. And there’s a lot of underage drinking going on.

However, it does teach some lessons, such as the fact that no matter how devastating a heartbreak may be, your friends and your family will be there to help you through it. They won’t be able to fix it—only time can heal those wounds—but they can make you feel better, the story tells us.

And Henry gets honest with readers about love. He tells them that standing in front of someone and offering them your soul and having them reject you is going to be one of the worst things that ever happens to you. He tells them that anyone who has that experience will naturally wonder what was wrong with them that they couldn’t make that other person love them. That they’ll look for a reason why and find a million. But then he wisely tells them, “What you need to remember, as I remembered as I watched Grace Town leave, is that you are extraordinary.” And if readers can somehow muddle their way through all the problematic content, that’s actually a beautiful (and true) lesson to leave them with.

Plot Summary

Henry Page is a good kid. He’s never been involved in any scandals, he gets decent grades, and he’s set to become the editor of his school newspaper. He’s also never been in love.

But that all changes when Henry walks into Mr. Hink’s office (the English teacher in charge of the school paper) and meets Grace Town, a transfer student who walks with a cane.

Hink wants Henry and Grace to be co-editors of the paper, but Grace turns the offer down. This intrigues Henry since he’s spent the past three years of high school working hard and buttering up his teachers to get the position. He can’t imagine why somebody would just turn down all that prestige, especially when it looks so good on college applications.

Henry manages to convince Grace to take the position, but his intrigue soon turns into obsession. Grace is a mystery that Henry wants to solve—like what caused her to have a limp? Why does she always wear men’s clothes? Why did she transfer schools her senior year? Why does she walk everywhere when she has a perfectly good car? What happened to make her so broken?

The further Henry digs, the harder it becomes to pull himself out. Grace warns him that he doesn’t want to be with someone like her. She tells him that she has sins she needs to absolve. But she also tells him that she loves him, and for Henry, that’s more than enough reason to fight for her.

Even when Henry discovers that Grace is grieving over her dead boyfriend (whom she is still in love with), he wants her. He imagines that she’s like the Kinsukuroi pottery that he loves so much—broken, but even more beautiful when glued back together with seams of gold. Henry wants to be the one who puts Grace back together, no matter what the cost.

Of course, that cost is quite expensive. Henry skips school, neglects his homework and nearly gets fired from the school newspaper in his desire to spend as much time with Grace as possible. His two best friends, La and Murray, tell him to stay away from her. La warns him to get his act together, or else she’ll report his bad behavior to their teachers. Even Grace tells Henry to back off so that she won’t hurt him.

But Henry is convinced that he and Grace are soul mates. And despite knowing that their relationship is probably doomed, he pursues it anyways. Henry wants to fix Grace. Because at the end of the day, Grace creates a chemical reaction in his heart that causes him to love her, and that’s a feeling he doesn’t want to lose.

Christian Beliefs

The Christian theme of confessing one’s sins as the first step towards redemption is discussed throughout the book. However, there is no evidence that anyone actually believes in God. (Henry, in fact, admits to praying to “deities” he doesn’t believe in when his life is at risk.) Rather, characters find their own methods of penance—Murray even goes so far as to dress up as a priest carrying holy water to absolve his fellow classmates of their sins.

There is a reference to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. There are several jokes about Satanism and demons. Characters are compared to both devils and angels. Someone thinks a girl needs to be exorcised. A teacher tells two students to “leave room for Jesus” when they kiss on school property. Someone mentions putting the “fear of God” into another character.

Other Belief Systems

Grace believes that the existence of human beings is a “ridiculous cascade of random chances.” She states that humans are just an insignificant collection of atoms that are released back into the universe at the end of their lives.

However, while it bothers some people to believe that their lives are so meaningless in the grand scheme of things, Grace finds beauty in it, believing that death is the reward for living and grateful that when she dies, every bad thing she’s ever done in her life will be wiped clean and forgotten because of her insignificance.

However, Henry decides that he doesn’t buy into that way of thinking. When faced with being arrested, not getting into college and causing his sister to lose her job, he realizes that no matter how small our lives are in the grand scheme of things, they do matter. Human beings have too short of a lifespan for the great laws of the universe to apply to them. We won’t live long enough to see the sort of redemption that Grace talks about, so we have to find our own ways to redeem ourselves.

And in a way, Henry also realizes that Grace must somehow believe this as well since she tries to assuage her guilt by torturing herself and purposely causing herself pain, never allowing herself a moment of peace and happiness since she doesn’t believe she deserves it.

There are mentions of nonexistent ghosts. (Henry says he went to therapy as a child because he thought the ghost of his great-grandfather was trying to kill him.)

People talk about voodoo curses. Someone jokes about succubae (seductive female demons). A boy wonders if a girl could be a supernatural being, such as a witch, alien, werewolf or vampire.

Authority Roles

Henry’s parents are incredibly lax in their parenting methods. He wonders if raising his older sister, Sadie (who was arrested and expelled from school multiple times for a variety of crimes, including growing marijuana, brewing moonshine and setting a classroom on fire), to adulthood just wore them down. But he also notes that they’ve always been incredibly “cool” towards him. We see this when they make jokes about the fact that he hasn’t been arrested yet, when they offer him a box of condoms after he gets a girlfriend and when they neglect to punish him for underage drinking.

While it’s clear that they trust Henry to make good choices, this also creates problems when he fails to complete his school assignments for three months because of his focus on Grace. Very belatedly, his parents start enforcing some restrictions on Henry. And while this helps in the short term, his folks still remain woefully ignorant of the reason behind his change in behavior. So it falls to Sadie to really get him back on track (though less as an authority figure and more as a friend who understands what he is going through).

Sadie, for her part, is a successful doctor and single mom. Despite her previous juvenile delinquency, she actually does hold some authority in Henry’s life. She is the only member of their family who realizes that he is distracted by a girl; in addition to offering him advice about his love life, she helps to correct some unhealthy expectations about love brought on by a façade portrayed by his parents. (As mentioned above, they decided not to tell him that they were no longer in love with each other in order to give him a stable childhood.)

The teachers at Henry’s school are often not regarded with the respect that they deserve. There are several instances where students are rude towards their teachers or even flat-out disregard school rules. That said, it also seems as though they almost bring it upon themselves.

Mrs. Beady, the drama teacher, allows Grace to arrive late to class every day and never forces her to participate simply because she feels badly that Grace walks with a cane. When Henry says that his “teenage hormones” rendered him too “emotionally fragile to be in a learning environment,” the school principal allows him to skip several classes without further explanation.

And then there is the legend that is Sadie Page, Henry’s rebellious older sister. Sadie was expelled five times from the school for a variety of “shenanigans” but always reenrolled because of her brilliance in the classroom.

This isn’t to say that the teachers don’t try to exercise some authority—they threaten to fire Henry as editor from the paper multiple times after discovering he hasn’t been working on it for months—but they seem to be very weak on their follow-through (which is evident since Henry is able to keep his job as editor even after breaking into the school over a weekend).

We learn that Grace moved in with her boyfriend Dom’s family because her own mom neglected her after her dad passed away. (She was once left alone for three days with no food and was sleeping on a bed in her mom’s husband’s basement when she finally ran away.)

After throwing a party while his parents were out of town, Heslin (one of Henry’s classmates) gets grounded. A few months later, for reasons unknown, his parents decide to unground him and leave him in charge again, resulting in another party.

Henry, La and Murray’s parents trust their kids enough that they have become accustomed to finding each other’s kids in their houses after allowing them to attend parties the night before. Henry also feels grateful that none of them had to come from unstable homes.

An adult corrects Henry’s language once when he swears in front of younger kids. La gets upset when Murray uses a foul term for female genitals as an insult, and he sincerely apologizes and promises to stop saying it.

Profanity & Violence

We see uses of the f-word and s-word throughout the book. There are also frequent uses of “a–,” “a–hole,” “b–tard,” “b–ch,” “bloody,” “d–n,” “d–k,” “douche,” “h—,” “p-ss,” “p-ssy” and “slut.” We also hear some colorful language depicting male and female genitals and some milder insults (such as “dingbat” and “idiot”).

Both God’s and Christ’s names are misused heavily (the former often paired with “d–n”). There are also several misuses of the word “holy.”

Violence-wise, we learn some graphic details about the car crash that injured Grace and killed Dom, including the fact that Dom did not die on impact but rather suffered for several minutes before passing away. Henry also envisions Dom’s body decomposing.

Grace engages in self-harm, beating her injured leg mercilessly in order to slow the healing process. (Henry compares this to cutting, believing she might even like the pain. He also worries that she may have drowned herself after she suddenly goes missing.) Grace mentions that while she was in the hospital after the crash, she wanted to die in order to end her physical and emotional pain—though she also says she has no suicidal tendencies. Henry, on the other hand, frequently expresses a desire to die or take his own life; but unlike Grace, he never clarifies whether he is serious or joking.

We learn about the death of girl’s grandfather. We hear about the deaths of several pet fish. People joke (sometimes inappropriately) about death and murder. A girl spends her free time reading articles about serial killers and plane crashes. A student uploads footage of an after-school fight online. Someone mentions a child being a terrorist in a movie.

Several people nearly get trampled on Black Friday after someone uses pepper spray. The news also reports that someone got stabbed. A man accidentally gets knocked unconscious with a wiffle bat. Henry gets tackled during a game of touch football and believes he may have a concussion.

Other players wear T-shirts bearing the image of an anatomical heart being crushed by a hand. A boy sprains his ankle jumping off a hedge. A girl purposely kicks a boy in his shins. Grace drives a car recklessly, making Henry fear for both his own life and hers.

Sexual Content

Henry and Grace make out and have sex several times. While the details of these events aren’t pornographic, we do hear about the placement of hands and lips and some description of Grace’s naked body. On one occasion, Grace kisses him wearing only her undergarments. She also cries after having sex with him for the first time because she misses Dom and wishes he was there instead of Henry.

Before Henry has sex for the first time, Sadie has a conversation with him about consent, being emotionally ready to have sex and feeling safe with his partner. He and Grace also have a conversation a few days beforehand about virginity (he is a virgin, but she isn’t). After they have sex, Henry notes that it wasn’t romantic or like the movies and pornography he had seen. Henry says that he has been thinking about sex since he was 12. We learn that he Googled how to be good at sex.

Henry comments that unlike his classmates, he isn’t a “testosterone-driven sex monster.” However, after he meets Grace, we find him increasingly wanting to touch and kiss her (imagining some scenarios involving groping). After they have sex, he frequently imagines her without clothes. And once when he is angry with her, he imagines having sex with a lingerie model as revenge.

Additionally, a few teen girls’ bodies are described. (Several of them also wear “sexy” costumes to a Halloween party.) We hear about other teen couples who have sex, dance inappropriately at parties and make out in dark corners. Rumors also circulate throughout Henry’s school about two boys who got an STD after having unprotected sex with the same girl.

La is described as a “raging lesbian,” and she is in a long-term relationship with a girl from another school (whom she kisses on the cheek once). Several people suspect that La became a lesbian after she kissed Henry three years prior, but both friends maintain that she was always gay, she just didn’t realize it until after the kiss. We also hear that she started looking at naked pictures of women at age 11. It is implied that Henry’s uncle is gay, and that he has a long-term partner.

Teen boys frequently talk about having sex with girls. Once when someone assumes Henry is having sex with Grace, he fails to correct them even though they had not actually crossed that threshold at that point.

People make sexual references and joke about harassment and prostitutes. We learn about several divorced couples. Someone mentions male short shorts. An Indian girl pretends her parents want her to date someone from her own race to spare Murray’s feelings. Henry, Murray and La are very touchy-feely with each other despite having completely platonic friendships. We hear about cartoon characters dressing in drag. La compliments Henry’s appearance.

Discussion Topics

Knowing that Grace felt guilty for Dom’s death, how do you think she could have better processed her grief?

What do you think of Henry and Grace’s ideas about eternity, oblivion and the absolution of sins?

Do you think Henry’s parents’ attempt at protecting him from the truth regarding their marriage is what shaped his image of love?

Why do you think Henry, despite knowing that his involvement with Grace was toxic, chose to repeatedly ignore his friends’ (and his own) rational advice to stay away from her?

Get free discussion questions for other books at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments

Henry recognizes that his relationship with Grace is unhealthy. It makes him jealous, anxious, stressed, angry and sad. Whenever he tries to push things further with her, she pulls away. He tries to understand that she is still trying to heal from Dom’s death, but he also doesn’t think it’s fair that she is using him to fill the void in her loneliness. Grace recognizes that this isn’t fair and tells Henry that she simply isn’t ready to be better yet, but neither one of them seems able to cut the ties.

There are frequent instances of underage drinking. At first, Henry enjoys seeing Grace get drunk because she seems to truly “come alive” and actually enjoy herself. However, when she gets intoxicated, she also has a tendency to make declarations of love, which wears on Henry when she sobers up since she either can’t remember what she said or realizes that she can’t keep the promises she made.

We learn that Grace’s mom is an alcoholic and meth addict. We learn that one of Henry’s relatives died from alcoholic hepatitis. Multiple teens vomit after consuming too much alcohol. A boy says he only passed his driving test because his instructor was hungover. And although there are no depictions of drug use, several people joke about becoming addicts or drug dealers, and Sadie used to grow marijuana illegally. Murray smokes a cigar. A student is suspended for smoking at school. Henry privately compares Grace to “junkies” due to her gaunt and unkempt appearance.

Henry realizes that Grace should probably be in therapy to handle her grief, but never suggests it since he wants to be the one who helps her heal. He also recognizes that he might need therapy himself since the endorphins he gets from receiving a text from Grace are not unlike a drug addiction.

Murray falls in love with an Indian girl, whom he refers to as “Sugar Ghandi” since he can’t pronounce her real name. Several people note that this is racist, however, the girl herself enjoys the nickname. La, as a half-Chinese, half-Haitian girl, is chosen to be on the cover of all the school’s publications in order to show off its “diversity.”

There are instances of theft, breaking and entering, bribery and trespassing. Sadie also admits that she set the home economics kitchen on fire to make a statement against patriarchy. Some students are arrested for constructing and riding a motorized picnic table around campus.

There are several unsavory jokes about stalking, AIDS, Nazis and even being crippled. People lie. A boy is teased by his friends for spewing “patriarchy.” Students laugh at a teacher behind his back for having bad dandruff. There are many pop culture references to things like Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey, Game of Thrones, Fight Club and more.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Emily Clark

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