I think most bibliophiles are familiar with at least one book that has wrung them out completely, a sucker-punch to the gut, that leaves you feeling like a train-wreck. A book that touches our own experience so keenly that we can do nothing but plow through the story and feel the inexorable pull of the words against our heartstrings. For me, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, was one of those.
With a book that’s billed as a tragi-comic romance about kids with cancer, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s sad. But I never would have predicted how evocative the story would be.
Our narrator is your average 16 year old, except that she isn’t. Hazel has been diagnosed with terminal cancer: thyroid originally, with what she describes as a satellite colony in her lungs. This requires her to constantly be attached to a portable oxygen tank, and usually her hovering mother. Hazel is no longer attending high-school due to her illness, but she earned her GED through self-study and is taking college courses 3 days a week. She’s pretty (in a cancer-y way), and smart, and a vegetarian. She’s also witty, and mature, and a lover of America’s Next Top Model who can also recite The Lovesong of J.Alfred Prufrock on command.
Hazel meets Augustus Waters at a support group for children with cancer; he is currently in remission after an operation to remove his left leg. He’s gorgeous, and charming, and witty. He’s also introspective, satirical, and an intense lover of video games and metaphors.
They meet, they bond over Hazel’s favourite novel, and *spoiler alert* the fall in love. The reader gets to participate as they learn about themselves, each other, and those around them. I don’t want to ruin it for you, so that’s all I’m saying.
What I will say, is that these characters are some of the most skillfully crafted I have read in some time. They are wonderful studies in contradiction, and mature, well-read, and self-aware in a way that I would have a hard time buying from normal, healthy kids of that age. The book gently explores the effects of serious illness on those who are suffering and those who are close to them, without being overbearing. Green has somehow tapped into the psyche of these kids in a way that goes beyond the specialty of the genre: kid-with-cancer-overcomes-disease-with-positivity-while-inspiring-everyone. He doesn’t beatify them, he does his best to be real, and it pays off in spades.
This novel reminded me – in good ways – about my grandmother, and her experience with cancer. This book helped me to remember her, and to gain some perspective on the year she spent bedridden, fighting the tumor in her brain. All cancer stories are different, but some of the similarities resonated with me, particularly the good humour with which these kids normalize their experience.
I read this in less than 24 hours; which is to say that it is not a hard book to read despite the heaviness of some of the subject matter, for which I thank Green profusely. As far as I am concerned, anything that encourages me to remember her for a few hours is a blessing. My recommendation: read it, even if you don’t think you’ll like it. I promise it’s not what you are expecting.
And for Heaven’s sake make sure you have some tissues on hand.