This book was remarkable for nailing a lot of being a teenager in a way that felt authentic to me, and that’s always refreshing. (I remember liking Harold and Maude before **SPOILER ALERT FOR A MOVIE THAT’S PUSHING FIFTY BUT YOU SHOULD STILL ABSOLUTELY SEE SO THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING ** Maude announces she’s taken a lethal dose of pills to commit suicide, and Bud Cort waits a beat long enough for me to lament that movies never show characters reacting like a real human would, expecting him to serenely accept her decision, before he screams “WHAT?!” at which point I loved it). But, the hard part about this book is that a lot of being a teenager is being remarkably embarrassing and selfish.
So when Greg, whose ambition is to slip through high school unnoticed and unremarkable, finds out that an sort-of-ex-girlfriend has leukemia, he mostly does so for ignoble reasons. A desire to see himself as a good person. An inability to say no. Wanting to impress her more attractive friend.
His much more outspoken friend Earl, whom he makes terrible movies with, eventually calls him on this and points out that Rachel (titular dying girl) has been a better friend to him than anyone he’s tried to impress (and that for all his wanting to keep a low profile, being friendly to all is itself a kind of need to impress), but it all comes kind of late for the reader to like Greg much. As a narrator he is self deprecating in that way that’s meant to disarm criticism rather than address flaws. He doesn’t have any big moment with Rachel because life is cruel; he doesn’t become a Spielberg because tragedy doesn’t equal talent. That’s all fine for real life, but the lesson learned – that Rachel deserved more than she got from him – is kind of an infuriating one for a book. That said, I can’t fault it for it.