The Short Version: Hazel Grace Lancaster, sixteen years old, has cancer. After a medical semi-miracle stopped the advance of the disease at age 14, she’s been stuck in a world of questionable futures – until she meats Augustus Waters at her Cancer Support Group. What ensues is another star-crossed love to join the ranks of the greats, both those immortalized in literature and those unknown to anyone but real people.
The Review: Okay. So I sat down to start writing this review with the tears freshly rolling down my cheeks but I couldn’t. So I went out and I took a walk around my neighborhood and I haven’t eaten dinner yet because I don’t like eating when I’m upset. And this book made me cry, man. I simultaneously want to punch John Green and hug him, mostly for the same reasons.
When people write these books – and by these books, I mean the heart-string-tuggers in general (although cancer novels are a particularly egregious subset. also Alzheimer’s books – looking at you, The Notebook) – they are often so full of platitudes and blatantly emotional grenades that are designed to make even the hardest of hearts soften… and I hate that. I hate that, so much. Language is so powerful so don’t use it to sucker punch me into feeling sad. There’s enough sadness in the world already, you know?
But then a book like this comes along – a book that is, by classification, a young adult book – and speaks so simply and truthfully and beautifully that when you’re crying at the end, it feels absolutely right. No sucker punch, no fiercely strummed chord on the heartstrings. Just love and loss and what it feels like to be a teenager. I think I was crying not because the book was sad (although it most certainly is quite, quite sad) but because it pulled off the incredible feat of making ridiculous, outrageous expressions of love seem like the most natural thing in the world. And believe me, that’s really hard to pull off in reality let alone in writing.
But, okay, the book itself. First off, bravo to Mr. Green for putting Big Serious Issues of Existentialism and Life & Death into a book that’s going to fall into the hands of the people who need it most: kids. If adults aren’t forcing kids to read the same boring “great works”, they’re restricting what they can choose to read because of ideas “too mature”. And then the few books that manage to slip through those various nets are Twilight. Or The Hunger Games. Now, don’t get me wrong – I loved the entire Hunger Games trilogy. But only the third book deals with anything remotely resembling the Big Issues in a serious way. Sure, kids die in the first two and that’s a hypothetically horrifying thing… but let me ask you, how many of you were actually horrified? I sat in a movie theater on opening night and heard an entire auditorium cheer when a kid was killed. Doesn’t matter that he was a “bad guy” – he was still a kid. Seems like people didn’t learn the lesson Ms. Collins wanted to get across. But I digress: the reason this book is Important and deals with the Big Issues in such a beautiful way is that death happens. Death is a very real thing, here. Hazel knows she is just marking time and she is 16 years old. Watching her, a teenager who just wants to be a teenager, have to say to her parents that she wants to make sure they’re okay when she’s gone is…. actually horrifying. In the sense that such a thing is downright impossible to conceive until you’re faced with it.
But here, in the face of certain death, is love. Star-crossed love, in the best possible way. Love that makes you do stupid things like fly halfway around the world. Love that makes you push someone away so that they don’t get hurt but that just hurts them all the more. Love that feels like you cannot exist when that other person is gone. We should all be so lucky to experience that love – but, for most of us, we’ll experience that or something like it more than once. And that other person will, more often than not, go. They won’t die, they’ll just leave – or we will leave them. And our hearts will be broken but they will heal and life will go on. Not here. I won’t ruin any of the details about this story but suffice it to say (and I think this should be relatively obvious to anyone who picks up the book and reads the jacket copy) someone will not outlast the love of this novel. At sixteen years old.
But damned if John Green doesn’t find a way to make the awkwardness of romance with a terminal disease feel… well, just as awkward as it felt for those of us who did it healthily. It is difficult for healthy folks to understand those living with illness – I know I can’t, not really – but Green does such a good job of basically saying “it isn’t about healthy vs. diseased. it’s about being human.” And that feels like such a new concept that the book practically springs off the page. Augustus is a hilarious charmer and Hazel such a typical teenage girl that you root for them to fall in love. Their best friends are basically stock characters but fun ones and it’s as though they become more real by association with our leads.
The story itself feels a little far-fetched at times… but, as the author points out in his gently reminding author’s note, this is fiction. It’s allowed to be, so stop saying it can’t be far-fetched just because it happens “in the real world”, okay? And when you stop and think about that, then think about your own life… I’ll bet you find something pretty far fetched that you’ve done or been a part of. I know I could fill a memoir with ridiculous stories that I’ve been a part of – so why not tell the kids who are reading this that while the world is a dark and terrible place full of tragedy and inevitable death, there’s also magic. Real magic, the kind that happens when you go somewhere new or experience something for the first time or when you fall in love – however many times that might happen to you. But for me, I fell in love with this book hook, line, and sinker in the same way Hazel falls in love with Augustus: “the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once.”
Rating: 5+ out of 5. A triumph. A book that defies all of the conventions of its various genres and becomes, just quite simply, a book worth the reading for the sake of reading it. It’s a cancer book, a young adult book, a sad book, a funny book, a life-affirming book, etc etc etc. But none of those things matter because it is a great book – and that is good enough.