“Panic has a salty taste. It’s like I’m standing in a small glass tank and the tank is filling up with water… There’s no way out of the tank. All I can do is wait as the water surrounds me. I stretch my neck up for that last bit of air. I’m gasping. And then, when I can barely catch my breath, it stops. The water recedes, always. I never end up drowning, but it doesn’t matter. The feeling of almost drowning is even worse than actually drowning. Actual drowning is peace. Almost drowning is pure pain.”
Let me preface this review by saying that despite Dear Evan Hansen being at the top of my must-see musical list, I’ve never actually known the full synopsis, or fully worked out the storyline from listening to the soundtrack. SO, when the angels at Penguin Children’s sent out a copy of their new novel adaptation by Val Emmich*, with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it’s safe to say it was the best bit of book mail I’ve EVER had. You know the excitement is real when you give yourself a paper-cut trying to get it out of the envelope and absorb those all important words into your brain as speedily as possible.
To give you a bit of context: Dear Evan Hansen has been emotionally destroying people in the good kind of way over on Broadway for the last couple of years, and you just know that every theatre fan is waiting with bated breath for the West End transfer. The book features protagonist Evan Hansen, a high school student coping with debilitating social anxiety, as well Connor Murphy, a fellow student who makes the decision to take his own life towards the beginning of the story. Due to a misunderstanding of epic proportions caused by a letter written TO himself BY himself, Evan finds himself having to keep up the pretence of being Connor’s bereft best friend, left behind to grieve after Connor’s suicide. He ends up caught in a web of lies that, despite ultimately doing good and serving to make others happy, cause his already fragile mental health to spiral to crisis level.
So, how did I find the book? After the first few chapters, I’d resigned myself to the fact that reading a story I consciously knew was already a renowned musical was going to be a tricky experience. I don’t think it was so much an issue with the narrative as it was with my own mind constantly wondering where each musical number would fit in, and how this exact piece of dialogue would look on stage. At that point, I decided my critique of the novel would be just that: that it felt like a musical synopsis with a bit more meat on its bones.
HOWEVER. I’m not sure how or where it happened, but there came a point where those preconceptions completely left my mind, and I became caught up in a story so engaging that I struggled to put the book down and get on with my own life. I NEEDED to know whether Evan was going to be alright, and how this storyline was going to play out. Author Val Emmich really drives home the emotive parts of the story, making you feel all the things for this boy who’s finally experienced what it’s like to be a part of something, to be wanted, and will do anything it takes to hold on to that feeling a little bit longer.
It’s difficult to compare a book and a musical when you haven’t yet seen the musical, but one thing I did appreciate was how the use of literary devices like symbolism could be utilised to their fullest potential in the book, in a way that perhaps couldn’t be as easily employed on stage. To me, Evan’s broken arm encased in a cast seemed to be a metaphor for his vulnerability: the way he’s forever aware of it and compelled to grasp hold of it, even long after the cast has been physically removed, leaving the arm exposed. The subtle repetition of this in the book made it all the more impactful in my eyes, and it’ll be really interesting to look back on this review once I’ve seen if or how this is incorporated into the musical.
Ultimately, the book confronts the issue of isolation head on: not just Evan’s profound loneliness and feeling ‘different’, but the emptiness perceived by those all around him too. Every prominent character in the story is carrying their own burden, from Connor’s affluent but completely bereft family to Evan’s loving but absent single mother, to somewhat narcissistic classmate Alana using Connor’s suicide to drive her own personal gain. It’s a tale of people making mistakes, and how one small action can have an uncontrollably strong ripple effect on so many others. And what will always stay with me after reading this book is this: you don’t have to ‘fit in’ or be like everybody else around you, to change a life forever.
Thank you so much to the Penguin team for my copy of Dear Evan Hansen! If you’re a fellow bookish stagey person, you NEED this book in your life: it’s released TODAY (9th October 2018) and you can purchase it on Amazon now*. I’d LOVE to hear how you find it!
Are you a Dear Evan Hansen fan? Have you been lucky enough to see it on stage already? Do let me know, and feel free to peruse my other bookish posts too!
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