By John GreenI told Augustus the broad outline of my miracle: diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer when I was thirteen. (I didn’t tell him that the diagnosis came three months after I got my first period. Like: Congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die.)
A book about kids with cancer. Awesome! Can’t wait to read that one! If that’s your response to all of the hype surrounding The Fault in Our Stars, don’t worry. You’re normal. Despite being a huge John Green fan myself (see Nerdfighter), it actually took me awhile before I was convinced that this book would be worth my time. It seemed cliché, depressing, and like a calculated tear-jerker. What I wasn’t expecting was a thoughtful, realistic, humorous story about life, love, mortality, and the desire to be remembered. (I’m sorry I ever doubted you, John!)
At the beginning of this story, we are introduced to Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old Indianapolis native with thyroid and lung cancer. Yeah, she’s depressed. No, she doesn’t have a social life or many friends left. And yes, she spends her times floating between tv marathons, hanging out with her family, and being forced to go to support group. Despite all that, she’s doing okay. And then she meets Augustus Waters. He’s in recession after osteosarcoma took one of his legs, but that doesn’t stop him from overflowing with intelligence, life, and humor. They flirt, they fall in love, and they fight it, because Hazel is terminal and Augustus has already lost one girlfriend to cancer. On the surface, it seems like a typical Young Adult romance novel, but all the while, Green is bringing to life the questions, struggles, and heartbreak that are a reality for thousands of children and teens sitting in our hospitals and schools right now.
The realism that Green brings to this story sets it apart from typical romances. His brutally honest approach to cancer makes it feel like you’re getting punched in the gut every few pages. This book was poking at my heart and choking up my throat within the first few pages, and for someone who reads a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, there were a couple aspects of this novel that made it weirdly realistic and gut-punchy for me. For one, as an Indianapolis resident, the story’s setting was a constant reminder that stories like this exist in real life and in my city. I shop at Castelton Square Mall! I love watching kids play on Funky Bones at the IMA! I even used to do my homework in the cafeteria of Riley Children’s Hospital and wonder about all of the kids’ stories as they came and went. And here Green is telling me their story, and it’s heartbreaking. Every time he’d mention a street or place that I was familiar with it was a brutal dose of reality. No, this particular story’s details are not true, but kids have to deal with these questions and look death and mortality in the face every single day.
On top of the eerily realistic setting, my uncle was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 12. They pulled him out of school. His chances of survival were 50/50. Maybe lower. Taking him to treatments and caring for him at home became my grandparent’s full-time job. Even though that was 35 years ago and he’s been cancer-free for years, I can still see the traces of pain and fear on my mom’s face when she talks about how scary those years were. I wasn’t alive during that time, but reading this book was like getting a glimpse into what it must have been like. I saw what my grandparents went through while watching their 12-year-old son teeter on the edge of death.
Occasionally, the book threatened to fall into eye-rolling territory. But refreshingly it was not because of any ooey-gooey love crap, but rather because the characters bordered on being, get this, too intelligent. Augustus is obsessed with metaphors, and Hazel, who is 16, has entire stanzas of complicated poetry memorized. And perhaps kids like that do exist. If they do, I’ve never met them. (And the classically-trained high school students who hang out at my local coffee shop read the Epic of Gilgamesh as freshman.) But it was also refreshing that Green felt no need to “dumb down” his writing for teenagers. So while Hazel and Gus’s intelligence and literary prowess felt a little put-on sometimes, it was still a choice that I appreciated.
I expected a cheesy, unrealistic teen love story. I got a brief glimpse into the life of teens battling cancer. Hazel’s dark humor unashamedly mocks society’s minuscule understanding of what cancer actually is. Augustus’s happy-go-lucky persona only masks his fear of oblivion, death, and being diminished to his disease. They are witty, intelligent, and very real characters. They stalk strangers on Facebook, throw temper tantrums, and are painfully aware of the pity society has to offer them. Ultimately, Green did not write a love story. He asked questions—How will people remember us after we’ve died and how do we choose to remember people who have gone before us? Those are difficult, complicated questions, and not surprisingly, The Fault in Our Stars is full of difficult, complicated emotions.