Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.
In his long-awaited return, John Green, the acclaimed, award-winning author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity in this brilliant novel of love, resilience, and the power of lifelong friendship.
Well, well, well. John Green. We have to stop meeting like this.
By “like this,” I mean: you write a book, I read it, I hate it. Wash, rinse, repeat. Every time! This is lucky number seven! I don’t think it’s working all that well for either of us. For me, at least, it’s definitely getting a little old.
But here we are. I keep using the weird brag/justification of “Yes, I hate John Green, and no, it’s not because I haven’t read (insert The Fault in Our Stars or Looking for Alaska or Paper Towns here) yet, because yes, I’ve read all of his books, and yes, the reviews are in, and yes, it was absolutely all bad.”
Except for the “the reviews are in” part. Because I haven’t really reviewed any of them. I wasn’t book-blogging in 2006 my dear boy. It has Not been a decade of these shenanigans.
And so, as I continue to use that line of defense against his wildly loyal, unaging group of geeky manic pixie dream girls in training, I continue to argue myself into reading his books. And oh boy do I suffer in return.
This is, unfortunately, not a The Fault in Our Stars type situation. (Never thought I’d be disappointed by something differing from The Fault in Our Stars!!)
I can’t just write a review of this that is, speaking generously, 92% me quoting the book and being like “hahaha can you believe this is just a normal average sentence in this totally real book.” (Although there will be a lot of that because HOW CAN I RESIST. I’m not a superhero.)
This book is not just John Green using cancer as an excuse to make teens fall in love with each other in a way that is profound and sad, or John Green using a missing person to make teens fall in love with each other in a way that is profound and sad, or…using another missing person to make teens fall in love with each other in a way that is profound and sad.
Oh sh*t, oh wait, this book DOES use a missing person to make teens fall in love with each other in a way that is profound and sad. Hahahaha. What is it with John Green and missing people??? We’re Looking for Alaska. We’re tearing this Paper Town apart to find Margo.
Hang on, I’m getting a phone call. What? It’s official? I’m the funniest person on Earth? I knew that tearing paper/Paper Towns joke would push me over the edge. Sorry, first runner-up John Mulaney!
So. Back to the point I lost roughly a thousand years ago. Even though this book DOES contain some terrible overwrought pretentious writing, and a manic pixie dream romance, and a missing person, that’s not its Thing. Like the Thing of The Fault in Our Stars is cancer/death/sadness, the Thing of this book is mental illness. Specifically a combination of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Which John Green has. This is #ownvoices for anxiety/OCD! Rad.
It makes the whole review-writing thing a tad more complicated though. Because, like. I didn’t like this book. Not because of the mental illness rep. But I can’t just exile the whole book to Garbage Island anymore. Because the rep is good.
My life is so hard, you guys.
The fangirls are going to come for me so bad.
The mental illness rep was good. But also it was still a John Green book and I strongly disliked the process of reading it and, in fact, was forced into a reading slump so hard that it feels like while I was reading this my brain was gently removed from my skull and replaced with a small mound of cotton balls.
I have still not recovered.
Let’s do some categories, yeah?
Also: this book needs a huge huge huge huge huge huge HUGE trigger warning for self-harm. I don’t know why I haven’t seen that mentioned more. I don’t consider self-harm a trigger for myself and I still had to take breaks while reading this.
THE PLOT, ALLEGEDLY
There isn’t one.
This book has excellent mental illness rep, yes, but it is still a John Green book and that means there is not a plot so much as there is “let’s listen to the every thought of some very unbearable and introspective teens for a few hundred pages, shall we?”
All of this overwhelming pretension and analysis and over-description of basic inanimate objects comes at a cost, and that cost is a little something I like to call “not being excruciatingly bored.”
I read this book on Overdrive, which has that handy-dandy little feature where you can see the proportion of the book you’ve read in a neat lil percentage. By the 5% mark of this book, we have read exclusively about a single lunch period in the life of our protagonist, Aza, which, we are told eight hundred times, is 37 minutes long.
I’m just going to close out this section here because there is no way I can make it any clearer than that.
IT’S NOT EVEN ORIGINAL YOU GUYS SERIOUSLY
Even though this book feels infinitely long, it is actually only 288 pages. Which is why it’s impressive that this sh*t not only feels unrelentingly verbose, but also unbelievably repetitive.
For example, one of my favorite inexplicable tropes crops up about nine hundred and seventeen times in this book: Teenage Characters With Sh*tty Cars That They Humorously Name And Love With All Their Adolescent Hearts. What a wild cliché!
Our protagonist, Aza, has a dinky little car named Harold. This is one of the only jokes in this whole book, and let me tell you there is some dark sh*t and the comic relief is NEEDED. (This is me attempting to be generous as I wonder why John Green could possibly have included so many iterations of the exact same joke.)
It’s not just the Harold joke. It’s also the setting of Applebee’s, where our characters go one hundred times, the only joke being the exact same premise of how funny it is that they are there, using a – hahaha you guys get ready, I really don’t think you’re prepared for how funny this is – a COUPON!
The Applebee’s staff hates them, guys. I mean, are you serious? A coupon? In an establishment often predicated on deals and savings? Get out of here, you zany teens. You’re too much.
Similar to this is the unrelenting onslaught of Details About A Rich Person’s House. Davis, the son of Missing Person Who Makes Teens Realize Things About Love, and also Subject Of Occasional Love When Necessary For Pretentious Pondering, and also Source Of Much Of Pretentious Pondering, is rich as hell. The (innumerable) descriptions of his home sound like 13-year-old me trying to depict teen pop sensation Justin Bieber’s home for a fanfiction I would never even research, let alone complete.
I’ll spare you the wondering: I was not good at writing fanfiction.
THE LANGUAGE GOOD LORD THE LANGUAGE
Here’s the thing. I know a lot of people love John Green for his writing. I am not one of those people, obviously, for the established reason that I find him unbearably pretentious, but many of them exist.
But like. Why, guys? Why do you love him? This book could be a master class in the use of the passive voice. I use the passive voice all the time, but a) every professor and teacher I’ve ever had has kindly asked me to f*cking stop immediately, and b) I’M NEITHER A WRITING PROFESSIONAL NOR RENOWNED.
But enough of that. Let me just do a liiiiittle bit of quoting. Just to show you guys that I’m right about how pretentious and overwrought and unnecessary it all is. It’ll be a Google Translate type situation: I’ll write the phrase in normal human English, and then we’ll translate it into John Greenian.
Ceiling lights -> “fluorescent cylinders spewing aggressively artificial light.”
He drove faster -> “He accelerated with the gentle serenity of the Buddhist Zen master who knows nothing really needs to be done quickly.”
Also, here’s my FAVORITE THING. So there’s this passage in the book when Aza goes, “I was out of school for two weeks. Fourteen days of my life reduced to one sentence, because I can’t describe anything that happened during those days.”
So how many sentences do you think came after that? Zero, right? Aza clearly says the whole thing was reduced to one sentence.
GUESS THE HELL WHAT.
It’s followed by several paragraphs of description.
Sometimes it’s just too easy.
Anyway, I could keep quoting and quoting these increasingly unbelievable sentences but what would be the point? I hate the way this is written and some people love it and here we are. At an impasse. Not even a bad impasse. (Here’s where I should have said some sh*t like And yet not even an impasse worth solving – an impasse of opinion, which is also called life, or something like that. This is all, to me, sentiments alternately ordinary and slightly off disguised under the massive weight of gaudy phrasing.)
NOTHING MAKES SENSE. WE’LL ALL BE DEAD SOMEDAY
Here’s one of my favorite categories! Tiny things that bother me almost as much as the bigger things some might say “actually matter.”
Like, for example, in what world is a security guard responsible for the retrieval of Dr Peppers for quirky teens? (Which is also coincidentally the name of the charity I’m starting, or at least my band.) That security guard’s salary had best be bigger than God’s.
Also, this is literally so over-described that John Green forgets his own descriptions. “He was wearing his school polo shirt and khaki pants.” Next paragraph: “He had skinny, sunburned legs and knobby knees.” SORRY AZA, DID HE TAKE HIS GODDAMN PANTS OFF? DID HE? I’M SORRY, I MUST HAVE MISSED THAT BETWEEN DISCUSSION OF AN IMMORTAL REPTILE OR WHATEVER. PLEASE GO ON.
And I just want to put this passage here and see if anyone else craves the sweet sweet oblivion of unconsciousness after reading it: “The most recent quote was, ‘He who doesn’t fear death dies only once,’ which I thought was maybe some veiled reference to his father, but I couldn’t unpack it. (For the record, he who does fear death also dies only once, but whatever.)”
Okay actually I can’t just let it sit there. Are you KIDDING ME. Is this a deliberate misinterpretation of the quote??? Is this on-purpose dumb??? OBVIOUSLY THE MAN WHO FEARS DEATH DIES MORE THAN ONCE BECAUSE HE CAN’T STOP IMAGINING HIS OWN DEATH! To use your own words, John, it’s a goddamn metaphor! It makes sense to put the killing thing between your teeth or what f*cking ever but that eloquent af classic piece of prose is nonsense to you??
Sometimes even I’m surprised by how much this stuff grinds my gears.
TEEN TALK! WITH A PRETENTIOUS MIDDLE-AGED MAN
A lot of this book lacks the let’s-talk-about-the-evolution-of-the-universe-and-then-the-afterlife-if-there’s-time-to-spare mentality of most John Green teenage dialogue, but it does Not lack the polished, complete thoughts with that exactly one (1) witticism to every two (2) statements ratio.
Let’s just put some quotes in.
“Last night I lay on the frozen ground, staring up at a clear sky only somewhat ruined by light pollution and the fog produced by my own breath – no telescope or anything, just me and the wide-open sky – and I kept thinking about how sky is a singular noun, as if it’s one thing. But the sky isn’t one thing. The sky is everything. And last night, it was enough.” Like, have you ever in your godforsaken life read a more perfectly, quintessentially John Green passage than that one? It’s too good.
“At the end, when walking was work, we sat on a bench looking down at the river, which was running low, and she told me that beauty was mostly a matter of attention. ‘The river is beautiful because you are looking at it,’ she said.”
Here’s a clip of some texting convo for y’all:
“Him: Then what am I? What is anyone?
Me: I is the hardest word to define.
Him: Maybe you are what you can’t not be.”
You know. How teens text!
And then, just when you’re thinking “oh, maybe John Green just does pretentious dialogue now. Maybe we’ve escaped the unrelenting yoke of the quirkiness of his characters, the unbearable cringe-inspiring relatable -” he cuts you off in the middle of that thought with this sh*t: “You are like pizza, which is the highest compliment I can pay a person.”
God, that’s just…it’s hard to keep going after that one. Is this a Forever 21 graphic tee from 2011? What is happening right now?
I’m going to google “Cody Ko pizza” to soothe my weary soul. I suggest you do the same.
Anyway, it’s safe to say John Green really “gets” teens, you guys! He understands ’em. I mean, when was the last time you met a teen whose ideal date wasn’t “wandering a freezing cold park, sitting on a bench, and cavalierly mentioning the beauty of the river, only to be well actually’d by their girlfriend about the nature of aesthetic appreciation”?! I know I can’t remember!
NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL JOHN GREEN
The beginning of this book was…not John Green-y. Which, as someone who has declared the aforementioned man my nemesis, is a complete positive. But rather than being pretentious and overwrought and all of those things that make John Green John Green, it was boring. At least passionate hatred isn’t boring. So the introduction of highbrow philosophies related in their polished entirety about a fifth of the way through was almost a relief.
I’ve already quoted way too many of those highbrow philosophies, though. Either you’re masochistic enough to read the book or you have had Enough Of That.
A lot of this was not typical John Green, but also so much of it was??? The Missing Person thing, for example. Also the classic Uniquely-Named Friends With One Quirk, One Of Whom Is Not White. In this book, we got Daisy Ramirez, Mychal Turner, and Davis Pickett. I read this five months ago so I might be wrong but pretty damn sure everyone’s heterosexual af. The not-white friend is not the one who occasionally kisses our white protagonist (which is to say, this romance is Caucasian As Hell). You know. Just a touch behind on the diversity memo, outside of the excellent neurodiversity.
But also John Green might just not remember how to be John Green, considering that “Daisy’s self-proclaimed life motto was ‘Break Hearts, Not Promises.’” Really, John? You could get that sh*t on a 75% off clearance graphic tee for like four dollars. It’s been done. That’s the best you can do??
It’s like I don’t even know who you are anymore!
IN WHICH I TRY TO BE NICE
I have two nice-ish things to say.
One, I liked this quote: “He’s in that vast boy middle […] The whole problem with boys is that ninety-nine percent of them are, like, okay.”Extremely true and real.
My other kinda-nice thing is also very irrational and super unfair: I wish that John Green wrote a memoir about his particular mental illness. Because I hate this book for what it is, but I didn’t hate that part of it.
IN WHICH I REMEMBER WHY I REALLY, ACTUALLY HATE JOHN GREEN
I’m going to close this out with the only part of this book that made me actually furious. All the pretension and boring-ness and overwrought language and whatnot is all fun and games to me. But there’s a part of this book that is so resoundingly f*cked up, it made me actually angry. Here it is.
“Most adults are just hollowed out. You watch them try to fill themselves up with booze or money or God or fame or whatever they worship, and it all rots them from the inside until nothing is left but the money or booze or God they thought would save them. […] Adults think they’re wielding power, but really power is wielding them.”
F*ck this. F*ck this passage. I am not here for this Peter Pan adolescent-glorification egotism. Every single face you see in your entire life is representative of a person who has lived a life. Who has suffered. Just because we don’t all do it while spewing eloquent bullsh*t about constellations and speaking in half unknown literary quotations doesn’t mean we’re all cogs in some machine. We all live and think and feel. Maybe this is the thing I hate most about John Green: the glorification of the “weird” to the detriment of the “normal.”
It’s this blatant superiority (including this mocking of alcoholism as if it’s not just as much a mental illness as those of the characters in this book) that makes John Green absolutely unbearable to read.
And so, gang: I think he and I are done. And I can’t say I’m too upset about it.
That’s my bottom line.