Friday, June 4, 2021

Freeform Friday: Dear Evan Hansen (The Novel) - Val Emmich with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

Summary: Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be an amazing day, and here's why...

When a letter that was never meant to be seen draws high school senior Evan Hansen into a family's grief over the loss of their son, Evan is given the chance of a lifetime: to belong.  He just has to pretend 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 have taken him in like he's their own, desperate to know more about their enigmatic son from his "closest friend."  As Evan gets pulled deeper into the family's 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 incapacitated by anxiety or hiding form the disappointment in his mother's eyes, this new Evan has a purpose.  And confidence.  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 bighearted story of grief, authenticity, and the struggle to belong in an age of instant connectivity and profound isolation.  (Summary from book flap - Image from popsugar.com)

My Review:  The Dear Evan Hansen musical has been on my 'Current Faves' playlist for several years.*  I have never seen the show live, but I love the music and its inclusive message, so when I saw that a book-version was out I was darn near giddy.  Whatever version you choose to experience -- show, soundtrack, book, or the upcoming film adaptation -- Dear Evan Hansen touches on a variety of issues that might be triggering for certain people (see see sensitive reader section below this review).  The story will likely elicit a lot of deep feelings and not all of those feelings will be pleasant. If you are not in a safe place to explore those feelings, I suggest waiting until you are emotionally ready.  If you feel up to it, carry on...

Evan Hansen is a bit of a loveable mess -- socially awkward, lonely, nervous, and occasionally kind of hilarious, though he doesn't realize it.  Evan's feels alone, abandoned by his father who left when he was young, only to start a new family in another state. His mother worries about him incessantly, but doesn't have much time to spare between work shifts and class.  Evan longs to make friends at school, to connect with others and belong, but is paralyzed by anxiety, and terrified of rejection and ridicule.  Tasked by his therapist to write encouraging letters to himself, Evan tries to find a positive outlook on life and puts pen to paper.  Then one of his letters falls into the wrong hands.  

Connor Murphy is generally angry and unapproachable. He feels like no one understands him and no one every will.  Like Evan, there is more to Connor than what other people see and significantly more to his story than the soundtrack reveals. When Connor shoves Evan in the school cafeteria and later steals a letter meant for his therapists eyes only, Evan is certain his life is ruined.  Days later, Connor is found dead. In his pocket, a personal letter addressed to Evan. What begins as a sad misunderstanding, morphs into a well-intentioned lie that eventually spirals out of Evan's control.  It's hard to say whether the book's biggest twist (there are two, really) will surprise the reader.  While the soundtrack doesn't state what happens specifically, I could infer what was coming in the book based on my knowledge of the music.  Those unfamiliar with the soundtrack, might not.   

Evan's character is kind, insightful, and self-deprecating while Connor's is quite a bit darker and a lot more full of rage. While Evan is the primary narrator, Connor shows up every once in a while to observe and give his post-humous perspective on things.  Both boys have a lot more in common than either of them realize.   There are a variety of supporting characters that bring depth and emotion to the story: Heidi (Evan's mother), Larry & Cynthia Murphy (Connor's parents), and Zoey (Connor's little sister) as well as Jared, the pervy family friend, and Alana, the school "Hermione."  Those that take center stage feel incredibly human -- vulnerable, flawed, and deeply relatable -- and the author(s) did a wonderful job of conveying each characters' emotions through Evan and Connor's eyes.  As a mother, I especially identified with Heidi and Cynthia -- two moms who only want the best for their children, but are unsure how to help them.  

The predominant message of Dear Evan Hansen is both simple and profound with the potential to provide solace, save lives, and increase empathy and understanding.  It isn't just the icing on the cake; it's the whole dang thing.   

Everyone matters.  Everyone.

No one deserves to live a life alone in the shadows.  We are all dealing with something that makes us feel isolated from the world at large (especially right now, amidst a global pandemic). It could be depression, anxiety, guilt, loss, stress, loneliness, betrayal, abandonment, anger, or any one of a thousand other emotions.  We have all been lost and longed to be found; invisible and hoping (or afraid) to be seen.  We are not alone. 

It's hard to say how I would have felt about Dear Evan Hansen had I never listened to the soundtrack. It was hard for me to separate the two in my head. I appreciate that it tackles certain issues in a way that will help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.  I absolutely adore the message and appreciate the insight the book offered, but the written content is often explicit and certainly not appropriate for all ages. Those who take issue with the more controversial content, might be better served by sticking to the soundtrack, where the message remains the same and is a bit more focused.  

BONUS CONTENT: Here are some of my favorite DEH lyrics.  Just because.  Credit to theodysseyonline.com

*aside from track #4, which is a little crude

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: This book contains themes about divorce, suicide, depression, anxiety,  abandonment, and (briefly) references school shootings. It also has a fair amount of profanity and some crude dialogue.  Two male characters are briefly romantically involved with inferred intimacy, non-graphic.   

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