We’re reading our way across America...one romance at a time. And, to make it even more fun, we’re doing it in order of incorporation into the United States.
Indiana: The Fault in Our Stars By John Green
I’ve spent most of my life actively avoiding “cancer kid” novels, not because I’m afraid they’ll make me sad, but rather because I’m afraid they’ll make me barf. In my (admittedly limited) experience, fiction featuring sick kids can be a bit on the sweet side, tending toward sentimentality, treacle, and the feathery brush of angels’ wings. There’s nothing exactly wrong with any of those things, mind you; they’re just not usually my scene.
Then along comes The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s well-received Young Adult novel about two teenaged cancer patients who fall in love, and…wow. This book is to typical teen romance as Veuve Clicquot is to Capri Sun. Both funny and—well, “sad” doesn’t begin to describe it—it’s the best book I expect to read this year.
Hazel Lancaster of Indianapolis, age sixteen, has thyroid cancer that has migrated to her lungs. An experimental drug is temporarily preventing the tumors from growing, but no one—including Hazel— has any illusions about her ultimate prognosis. Because her lungs “suck at being lungs,” she’s usually attached to a portable oxygen tank, she sleeps hooked up to a breathing machine, and once a week she presents herself at the clinic so the doctors can drain fluid out of her. Almost as bad, her parents, fearing that she’s becoming depressed, mandate weekly visits to Support Group, where young cancer survivors sit in the center of an Episcopal Church— “right in the very heart of Jesus”—while a dreary social worker named Patrick leads them in “uplifting” discussions centered around their “battles.”
It’s at one of these meetings that Hazel meets Augustus Waters, who is fourteen months into a remission from an osteosarcoma that claimed his leg but left the rest of him intact. Augustus is handsome, intelligent, cynical, and very funny; he is also an ex-high school basketball star, which—given that we’re in the Hoosier State here—is a very big deal. In fact, Hazel’s slightly clueless best friend gushes about him in the reverent tones we usually reserve for the Fassbenders and the Skarsgårds and the Hamms ‘round these parts.
In any event, Hazel and Augustus connect. He introduces her to insanely violent video games and a lengthy series of books featuring someone called Max Mayhem with titles like The Price of Dawn. (Hazel helpfully spoils the ending: the price of dawn is blood.) She, in turn, introduces him to her favorite book in the world: An Imperial Affliction by reclusive author Peter Van Houten. Unfortunately, Van Houten ended his magnum opus mid-sentence, and while Hazel is pretty sure she understands why, she still— reasonably enough—wants to know how things end up for all his characters. Too bad that upon publishing his book the American Van Houten decamped for Amsterdam and hasn’t written another word, including responses to his fan mail, since.
As it turns out, Augustus is as intrigued by An Imperial Affliction as Hazel is, and he quickly hatches a plan to convince the Genie Foundation (think Make-A-Wish) to underwrite a trip for two (well, three, counting Hazel’s mom) to the Netherlands, there to confront the author. And from there, things both do and do not go the way anyone—up to and including Van Houten—has planned.
This book wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without two of the most appealing protagonists I’ve ever run across. Hazel is a funny, wry narrator but also understandably pissed off at her lot in life—when Lida, a well-meaning Support Group compatriot, simpers that she envies Hazel’s “strength,” Hazel immediately shoots back that she’ll gladly trade her “strength” for Lida’s remission. She and her parents are close, but she can still be unreasonable and bratty and pick stupid fights with them, like any teenager. And if Augustus seems just a little too good to be true…well, I can put up with that in return for prose like this:
“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
My inner sixteen-year-old hasn’t stopped sighing over that passage yet.
Green doesn’t shy away from the big questions, either: Why are we here? Is there an afterlife? Is there a God? And if you’re going to die anyway, is it better to be adored by the many or beloved of a few? As one character says: “We’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either.” Pretty intense for YA, no?
I should warn you that this book absolutely gutted me. With about fifty pages to go, I was already a hot buttered mess; and by the time it was over, I was flat-out bawling. I’m not talking about “oh, isn’t that sweet that Zsadist and Bella and Nalla are finally a real family, my eyes seem to be a bit damp here.” I’m talking about full-on, gut-wrenching, hiding-in-the-bathroom-so-I-don’t-scare-the-cats sobbing. Seriously, Hazel and Augustus, between the two of them, tore my heart right out of my chest and played volleyball with it. I don’t think a book has ever done that to me before.
Please believe me when I say that that’s the highest compliment I can possibly pay this remarkable novel.
Hazel eventually gets her answer from Van Houten…at the worst possible time, in the clumsiest possible manner, Van Houten not being a master of tact, subtlety, or—let’s face it— timing. And even more, the answer she gets doesn’t make any sense; it doesn’t seem to match the questions she’s asked. But it’s not a wrong answer, and that’s part of the beauty of The Fault in Our Stars. Sad it indisputably is, but it also sparkles; I’d call it “life-affirming,” but if Hazel were a real person she would certainly scoff at that term. It’s a rare and magnificent novel that illuminates what is no less true for being incomprehensible.
Kate Nagy is Editor at Large of Geek Speak Magazine.