It’s difficult to think critically about a book like This Star Won’t Go Out, because it was clearly put together with lots of love by the grieving friends and family of a charming, precocious, and kind sixteen-year-old girl who died from complications with thyroid cancer. So instead I’ll try to give you an idea what it’s like.
The book revolves around Ester Earl, who was about as lovely as any fictional book heroine you could imagine. She was funny, thoughtful, self-depricating, creative, kind, friendly, uncomplaining, clever, etc, your basic awesome human. Ester got sick when she was twelve years old, while her American family (of missionaries? It’s a little unclear, but her father is a pastor) lived in France, and they moved back to Boston for her medical care, which of course caused her some anxiety about disrupting her parents’ work. One of the interesting parts of this story is that it doesn’t shy away from unpleasant memories–Ester’s fears, irritations, and even the grumpiness of her and her family are well-documented, because this story isn’t about perfection in the face of adversity.
The book has several sources: Ester’s diary, Ester’s letters to her parents, Ester’s blog and vlog channel (the videos were transcribed, which didn’t always translate that well or fit with the rest of the book, since Ester—like most of us, probably—put more planning into what she wrote than what she said out loud), the Earls’ family blog use to keep friends and family up-to-date on Ester’s condition, and several essays and letters written by Ester’s loved ones, usually after she’d passed away. There are also some instant message conversations and some explanations of what was going on when it wasn’t clear from other sources. The book starts with Ester’s baby pictures and projects from when she was a kid and concludes with several of her unfinished stories, some about magical talking hedgehogs. Basically, her loved ones who put this book together wanted to preserve as complete a picture of Ester as possible. Understandable. But should all of us read Ester’s grade-school poems about the sea? And Teenage Me would have been mortified if someone published my unfinished fictional stories to better display my (equally-unfinished) character.
The entries don’t always go in chronological order, and this is confusing. Sometimes I’d be surprised (and a little disappointed) to see a jump of several months in the dates topping every entry, only to figure out that we’d actually gone BACK several months, not forward. This jumping around seems to have no narrative benefit—for example, I could get behind maybe hearing Ester’s parents’ version of a story, and then going back and reading what Ester wrote in her diary about the same events and realizing that she had experienced it totally differently, but that wasn’t the case. The accounts were very similar, and in fact, that’s how usually how I figured out we’d gone BACK in time instead of forward: because Ester would describe something almost exactly the way her parents did, and I’d think, “That happened AGAIN?” No, they just went back and told us again. I was so confused about why the stories out of order that I checked the page numbers to see if maybe my book had been put together wrong. It hadn’t.
One interesting and unique aspect of Ester’s story are her friends: because she was confined to bed much of the time and was active in many online communities including the Harry Potter Alliance and the Green brothers’ Nerdfighters, her closest friends were internet buddies with shared interests and similar humors. Being who she was, Ester didn’t talk much about her “health issues,” so for a long time most of her friends had no idea her condition was serious. With the help of Make a Wish, Ester got to have an in-real-life party at a Boston hotel with her group of internet friends (including John Green!) a few months before she passed away. When her friends, scattered around the country, got the news of her death, their grieving process was entirely unique–they’d lost a close friend, but their parents didn’t know Ester, their teachers didn’t know her, their other friends weren’t sad, they didn’t have the support of a whole community going through the same thing–the only other people who really understood the loss were far away and in the computer. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking.
There are many reasons to read this book: the proceeds benefit the TSWGO Foundation, which supports families of children with cancer and seems pretty great. It’s a true cancer story, not a story about a miraculous child who teaches us all a lesson with her kindness, but Ester really was pretty incredible. You may like this story from a faith perspective, since Ester was Christian and there is a lot of talk about God and Heaven and even a few (heartbreaking, seriously) scripture references. Or you might want to read this book because you heart John Green and read things because he tells you to. (This last one is me.)