As someone who doesn’t often read YA contemporaries, I decided to pick this up due to the release of the film adaptation that dropped in theaters mid-June. In choosing which edition to buy, I was aware that the publishers had redesigned the covers in anticipation to the film release, but still felt that the original cover served to provide a good introduction to the characters, particularly in reference to the main character, Greg’s, film-making hobby. I am also partial to the movie tie-in edition and had a bit of trouble deciding which edition to purchase. However, it turns out the original cover (above) is out of print in hardcover format, and my dislike the blurbs and award images on the front cover won me over and I decided to pay a little more to obtain the original cover. In terms of content, I found this book refreshing as it tended away from typical YA tropes, specifically the “absent parent” trope and the romanticism of a serious illness. This book surprised me in how self aware it was relating to classism and privilege by showing the contrast between Greg and his “business partner”, Earl.
This book is told in the first person narrative by Greg, who is an upcoming high school senior. His school hierarchy is split up into cliques, all of which would viciously judge and bully you if you associated with a clique that didn’t quite jive well with their own clique. To avoid being harassed, Greg has come up with a system to pass through high school without conflict by acquainting himself with each clique while not fully integrating himself to the point of association. The only person who would be considered a friend to Greg’s is Earl, another high school senior with whom Greg makes films with. Greg’s life is suddenly complicated during this last year as his mother forces him to befriend Rachel, a former Jewish school classmate of Greg’s who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. This causes Greg to reformat his social life and effectively “brought about the destruction of [his] entire life”.
A lot of other reviewers say the main character is someone you either find hilarious or someone who just grates on your nerves. My impression of him was a bit in between. As I started reading, I found Greg’s sardonic and nihilistic perspective humorous and interesting. However, the more I read, the more he just seemed annoying and completely self-involved. His complete lack of compassion turned me off to the progression of the story as his seemingly endearing complaints at the beginning of the book just became straight-up whining as time went on. Of course, the great contrast was Earl, who stood as Greg’s conscientious foil. Despite coming from a broken and dysfunctional minority family who lacked the privileges Greg had, Earl provides a great amount of insight on being a decent human being. Seen as the comic relief for a majority of the book due to his usage of Ebonic vernacular and random dialogue, the author was able to turn the token minority character trope on its head. Most often in media, the minority sidekick character is reduced to being lesser than the main character, lacking in heroic spirit. However, Earl was depicted in such a way as to use his hardships and life experiences to explain how he saw the world. I enjoyed the complexity the author provided for each character and strayed away from racial or classist prejudices.
I would have liked to have seen more emotional complexity in Rachel but I understand that as this is being told from Greg’s perspective, he didn’t really know her all that well, which was kind of the point. I also greatly appreciated that they didn’t romanticize cancer or dying or show it as a “this is my last chance to do anything so we should fall in love” situation. I had read The Fault in Our Stars prior to this and greatly disliked it due to the romanticization of a terminal illness. And likewise, I appreciated how the author showed different parents types, with Greg’s mother trying to be over involved, and Earl’s mother dealing with depression and substance abuse and being completely absent in his life. There were no John Green-esque “I’m not a regular mom. I’m a cool mom” types, nor were there any well-abled absent parents who did nothing to monitor and supervise their children.
Of course, this book isn’t perfect, as there were some minor things that I had problems with in this book. Specifically nearing the end, when Greg and Earl are eating Vietnamese pho and they liken it to testicles. I found it odd that throughout the book, the author tried not to stereotype, but in this moment showing cultural ignorance in an offensive manner. There were definitely other moments when I felt the author segregated too much, particularly within the school cliques, and therefore lacked a realistic high school environment.
I did enjoy the book for the most part and am looking forward to watching the film. However, I do think it is worthy to note Greg’s misrepresentation as skinny despite his description in the book as very pale and overweight.