Release Date: March 1, 2012
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Greg Gaines is the last master of high school espionage, able to disappear at will into any social environment. He has only one friend, Earl, and together they spend their time making movies, their own incomprehensible versions of Coppola and Herzog cult classics.
Until Greg’s mother forces him to rekindle his childhood friendship with Rachel.
Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia—-cue extreme adolescent awkwardness—-but a parental mandate has been issued and must be obeyed. When Rachel stops treatment, Greg and Earl decide the thing to do is to make a film for her, which turns into the Worst Film Ever Made and becomes a turning point in each of their lives.
And all at once Greg must abandon invisibility and stand in the spotlight. (courtesy of Goodreads)
This was a strange book. I picked it up, because I've heard the movie is wonderful. Unfortunately, it's not playing near me but I'm sure I'll see it eventually. Overall, I'd say I enjoyed the book well enough. There were a lot of things that bothered me as well as things I liked.
Starting with what I like. Teen cancer romances is a popular YA sub-genre. I should know. I devoured those books when I was a teen. And of course you have the TFIOS phenomenon. This takes every trope and turns it on its head. There is no real romance. The "dying girl" is not the center of the story. With a few significant exceptions, the characters don't have any grand wisdom to bestow. The book did not make me cry nor anywhere near crying. This book is something different. It's sarcastic and skeptical and is essentially a stream of consciousness rant of Greg's life.
I did not like Greg. He is selfish, lazy, inconsiderate, both too self-aware and not self-aware enough, and thinks he's much funnier than he is. He is an all around irritating person I would not want to be around. I am not opposed to unlikeable characters, but I do like them to show some sort of growth over the course of the novel, even if they don't become entirely redeemed. Greg did grow to an extent, but not enough to take the sting away of his self-centered nature.
Then we get to Earl, Greg's "friend." I have "Friend" in quotes, because he's more of a colleague for their love of film-making. Greg doesn't act as though he cares about Earl as a friend at all. Earl speaks in a stereotypical inner-city black dialect. Dialect is almost always problematic in literature, particularly when the author is not of the same background as the character (which is the case here). Does the use of dialect realistically portray a segment of society or does it perpetuate negative stereotypes? I don't know the answer to that, but in general I do not like the use of dialect.
Earl's role in the story also skirts the Magical Negro trope where his function is to speak wisdom to Greg and "fix" him. At which point Greg has character growth and an improved life while Earl's future is limited to working at Wendy's. On the other hand, one could argue that lifting up both characters ignores the reality of inner city social mobility. And Earl's speech is really, really good. The most genuine and emotional part of the book for me.
This is a very quick read, which was a good thing. Much of it was told in the form of scripts - Earl imagined his life as a screenplay. That is a bad thing in that it was really annoying, but a good thing in that it passed by quickly.
I've barely mentioned Rachel, the dying girl. That's because she isn't that important to the book. She is the framework the book is built around, but Greg is the central focus. Which is too bad, because I like Rachel. She feels real. Not spouting platitudes like Hazel Grace or having a perpetual upbeat nature in spite of the odds.
Despite mostly complaining about the book in this review, I did enjoy it overall. I liked the dark humor. I like how it varied from typical cancer books. While the screenplay style annoyed me, I liked that it was different. And I still want to see the movie.
Recommendation: Library. Then watch the movie, which I hope is better than the book.
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