Illustration by Cristy Road

Despite her tragic circumstances, Dahlia Finger, the antiheroine of Elisa Albert’s first novel, makes sympathy a tough sell. Diagnosed with a brain tumor at the novel’s start, Dahlia, a classic late-1990s slacker, by turns bored and infuriated with the world, spends her remaining months sponging off her pushover dad, mouthing off to her bitchy mom, watching schlocky movies on cable, and, of course, smoking pot.

In the movies, at least, the threat of imminent death tends to prompt epiphany-filled transformation, but in Dahlia’s case it serves only as further confirmation that the world really sucks. Still, The Book of Dahlia, streaked with dark, irreverent humor, ultimately proves surprisingly moving. Despite her flaws—and there are many—we fervently wish for Dahlia to live.

Nextbook’s Ellen Umansky talks to Albert about the origins of her novel, the role terminal illness has played in her own family, and the utter inadequacy of self-help books in the face of staggering problems.