A NOTE FROM GREG GAINES, AUTHOR OF THIS BOOK
I have no idea how to write this stupid book.
Can I just be honest with you for one second? This is the literal truth. When I first started writing this book, I tried to start it with the sentence “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” I genuinely thought that I could start this book that way. I just figured, it’s a classic book-starting sentence. But then I couldn’t even figure out how you were supposed to follow that up. I started at the computer for an hour and it was all I could do not to have a colossal freak-out. In desperation I tried messing with the punctuation and italicization like:
It was the best of times? And it was the worst of times?!!
What the hell does that even mean? Why would you even think to do that? You wouldn’t, unless you had a fungus eating your brain, which I guess I probably have.
This is how long it took me to realize I was going to have to force myself not to stay up all night and read this book in one go. I mean, come on. This voice? I didn’t even know who Greg was, but I was in. Honestly, I was probably in at “I have no idea how to write this stupid book.” So many questions! Why is he writing it then? Is he being forced to? What happened that was so important or awesome or scary or whatever that he decided to sit down in front of a computer and force himself to think of words while at the same time acknowledging that he might have a brain fungus?
And then I got to page 2.
I do actually want to say one other thing before we get started with this horrifyingly inane book. You may have already figured out that it’s about girl who had cancer. So there’s a chance you’re thinking “Awesome! This is going to be a wise and insightful story about love and death and growing up. It’s probably going to make me cry literally the entire time. I am so fired up right now.” If that is an accurate representation of your thoughts, you should probably try to smush this book into a garbage disposal and then run away. Because here’s the thing: I learned absolutely nothing from Rachel’s leukemia. In fact, I probably became stupider about life because of the whole thing.
Again, I don’t know who Greg is, but I’m in.
Turns out Greg is a high school senior who has perfected the art of invisibility. He realized early on in his educational journey that he had nothing to offer the social structure of school and rather than get the snot knocked out of him on a daily basis, he became a master of blending in and disappearing. It’s quite brilliant. He maintains a friendly and neutral relationship with all groups at school. No one is really sure where he belongs, figures he’s accepted by all, so they pretty much ignore him. He’ll pop in to laugh at a joke and then fade away. If no group can fully claim you, then no group can ostracize and destroy you.
He’s got one friend, but they don’t interact with each other at school. Greg thinks of him more as a co-worker. They met in kindergarten and bonded over video games. This then led to an understanding of movies that no one their age understood or even wanted to understand. When you’re in elementary school, subtitles aren’t interesting. Greg and Earl realize they can make movies, and they go crazy. They then quickly realize that when they do make a movie, they must never, ever show it to anyone. Greg’s parents will ooh and ahh and tell them how proud they are even though it’s clear to everyone that what they just watched was a waste of time for everyone on the planet. No, the movies are just for Greg and Earl and the making is more important than the watching.
Greg’s life is going just the way he wants, until Rachel gets cancer. But don’t worry, he doesn’t learn anything from it.
One of the things I really liked about this book was the way Greg tells it. We know right away that he’s writing this after everything has happened. We know Rachel dies. We know that something happens during this that has made him sit down to write the book. He tells the story in a way that makes sense for him – sometimes it’s linear, sometimes not so much. He’s a filmmaker, so sometimes we get scripts.
For the entire book we get the confusion that is the high school boy brain. Even worse, he knows how stupid he is, but he can’t stop himself. His inner monologue is brilliant. As he finds himself going off on a tangent of being sexually attracted to pillows he sort of sits back, horrified at what is happening while at the same time being fascinated at the effect of it on Rachel. Might as well get even more and more disgusting about masterbation if it’s making a dying girl laugh, right?
Clearly what I loved the most about this book is Greg’s voice. Andrews created a character who is fully developed from the first page. Yeah, we don’t know who he is or what he’s about, but we know this is a character that could exist off the page.
He continues to tell his story and watching everything unfold, you start to get more and more uncomfortable. You know Rachel dies. Greg tells us on page two! And yet you want it to be different. You also get to see Greg making amazingly bad decisions and you want to grab him and, if not shake him, at least turn him around and shove him down the hallway so he can think about what he’s going to do before doing it. There are a lot of cringe inducing moments in these pages.
I also wanted everything to work out for Earl, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Earl got dealt a bad hand. His homelife sucks and statistically you know he’s not going to have a super great ending. Still, you want him to have that moment of discovery, but don’t forget… Greg told you that this isn’t a story of love and redemption and learning and growing.
This book made me laugh out loud more than once, which is always awesome. There were parts that reminded me of my own stupid high school moments, which aren’t awesome, but it is awesome when an author can capture reality. I liked Greg and I wanted him to come out on top. Getting to the end of the book, I felt so bad for him and wondered what this one year of school had done to him and if he would be able to recover. The start of the book isn’t coming from a place of “I am awesome and let me tell you how I got to this amazing life.” I wasn’t sure where he even was when writing. Is he in jail? A psych ward? In some random hotel room in the middle of no where? What happened?
I really needed him to be OK.
This is one of my favorite books I’ve read so far this year. I could have easily read the whole thing in one sitting because of how Andrews wrote it. I loved the structure and Greg’s voice. The setup of the chapters is fantastic with lists and reviews, as well as screenplays coming in. It’s original and it works.