Similar note as on my last book review, typically, my style is to be verbose and long-winded. I have a difficult time employing brevity — this note is one example — but I’m going to try to do that here. I always like to give a few musings on a book after I’ve completed it, but I’m not looking to write a treatise. Also note, this is a spoiler-free review, so do not fret.
I gotta say, color me surprised to find that I quite enjoyed the book by John Green The Fault in Our Stars. I’m not opposed to the young adult genre or the romance angle employed here. In fact, I’m actually a sucker for both, if done right. And Green done did right. Still, I had my reservations going in and little did I know how wrong I was.
Green was inspired to write this book because he wanted to capture the lives of sick people; dying people. Because the way our society had been framing them situated them as the “other” and largely, like any “other,” they were misunderstood and in a sense, dehumanized. Green wants to fix that by doing a few neat tricks for his book: 1.) He has a female narrator, Hazel, who has cancer. Not many books I can think of have a narrator dying of cancer. 2.) He utilizes a healthy dose of dark humor, sarcasm and wit to make the characters complex, interesting and human. And in a sense, to destigmatize the idea of cancer and dying. 3.) There is far more serious, philosophical musings embedded within this than I expected. What is it to be human? To be a dying human? To be a human in love with another human? All good questions that Green muses upon.
I instantly gravitated toward Hazel because of her biting sarcasm. “Hey, I got cancer, what’s up motherfuckers?” kinda thing. That’s not to lessen the idea that she’s dying; she’s fully aware of it and struggles with it often, but the rub here is that it does not define her. Soon, she falls for Augustus, a likewise sarcastic, upbeat guy-that-beat-cancer-but-has-one-leg-now with a blind friend, Isaac, that’s hilarious. What really resonated with me about their blossoming love is the unique worry that someone with cancer, like Hazel, had about it: She likened herself to a grenade. She didn’t want her dying to fragment and damage others that she loved. That’s a powerful image that nicely (or darkly?) encapsulates the fear of falling in love when you’re falling toward death.
And they’re both obsessed with An Imperial Affliction, a book by Van Houten. With their “Cancer Perks,” as they describe it, they use Augustus’ wish to travel to the Netherlands and meet Van Houten because they must know how his book ended and what happened to the characters. Like their cancer journey, it is not without its obstacles.
Moreover, Hazel’s relationship to her mother is heartwarming. To see that devotion from a parent where they’re just trying to make every second count, was touching. As a typical teenager, Hazel gets a bit claustrophobic with her mother always being around and there, but she knows it comes from a place of caring. After all, she says, her mom is her best friend.
If Green’s aim was to humanize the dying and oddly enough, make them “lively,” then he sure did, as Hazel, Augustus and Isaac do the proverbial jump off the page. It’s a story you think you know, and you think you know how it will play out, but he still manages to surprise you. Most importantly, with books like these, there is a thin, thin line where you become too exploitative of the material (cancer) in order to tug at those heartstrings. Green manages to find the balancing act, mostly offset by the biting humor, and in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to walk away from this book not having stained its pages with a few tears.
Supposedly the film, which garnered good reviews, is a faithful adaptation of the book, which is typically unusual. I’ll be seeing it soon enough.