Guys, this is a Cancer Book.
First up, I do not like to read Cancer Books. I do not like to read Horrific Car Accident Books. I do not like to read Conceived to Provide a Bone Marrow Transplant for Her Sister Books. Blurbs like the one currently gracing the hero area of Jodi Picoult’s homepage:
Edward Warren, twenty-four, has been living in Thailand for six years, a prodigal son who left his family after an irreparable fight with his father, Luke. But he gets a frantic phone call: His dad lies comatose, gravely injured in the same accident that has also injured his younger sister Cara.
… I do not like. Before you get huffy with me, I have enough experience of family members having cancer for you not to be able to get shitty with me because you think I’m being insensitive. (It’s fine to dislike my general surliness, though.)
Obviously, it’s not about the cancer. My aversion to Sickness Books is something different that I think a lot of people can probably identify with. A friend of mine was recently watching some Disney movie or something that made her cry, and her mother asked her ‘Why would you watch something that makes you cry?’ I can understand that lack of comprehension about others’ culture-consumption choices. But for some reason, I like watching movies that make me cry. (I also like real-life, self-made situations that will make me cry, such as the present moment, in which I am downing the dregs of a double shot of Talisker while listening to the Dario Marianelli soundtrack to Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre. P.S. I pre-schedule these blog posts, just so you know I don’t routinely drink spirits before 11 am.) But I don’t enjoy or seek out books that seem guaranteed to elicit the Tears of Estelle. For some reason, I just can’t stand it. I feel so manipulated and sad and alone when I read those kinds of books.
However, John Green co-wrote one of my favourite YA books of the last few years, Will Grayson, Will Grayson. He is just excellent at writing teenagers’ voices that feel authentic, and with a lot of unforced, totally natural-sounding humour. His characters are super memorable and delightful. It is only with this kind of writing prowess that you can convince me to read your Sadness Book That Is Also Ubiquitously Advertised By Urban Poster (I never promised you that I was not a snob). You possibly also know of John Green, either from being one of his 1.2 million+ Twitter followers or seeing his Vlogbrothers videos or whatever.
Hazel Grace Lancaster is a 16-year-old with thyroid cancer. It affects her lungs, so she needs an oxygen tank at all times, and she’s at time painfully aware that she has ‘fat chipmunked cheeks’ from treatment. But she’s intelligent and hyper-engaged: she talks casually about psychologist Abraham Maslow and her favourite author Peter Van Houten. (Also, she agrees with me that ‘cancer books suck’, so there.) At the suggestion of her doctor, she begins attending a support group for children with cancer, held in the middle of a church, or ‘Christ’s sacred heart and whatever’. It quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t a Traditional Cancer Book. As the members of the group each share their feelings, Hazel explains, ‘Like, I realize that this is irrational, but when they tell you that you have, say, a 20 percent chance of living five years, the math kicks in and you figure that’s one in five…so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlive four of these bastards.’
That’s Hazel’s voice: matter-of-fact and whip-smart. I fell in love with her immediately. Someone else does too; Augustus Waters is a dude with a ‘low, smoky, and dead sexy’ voice, who shows up to support group. He’s got a touch of the too-verboses, but he’s hot and has an eye for Hazel, so he’s okay in our book. Augustus and Hazel build a friendship edged with the knowledge that one of them is unlikely to live very long. As Hazel puts it, they’re ‘learning to live with one foot in the grave’.
This book is amazing for so many reasons. The ones I want to list don’t even sound that amazing, but they just are. For one thing, Hazel’s parents are both present and loving, palpably devoted to their daughter while also being their own people (think of all the YA books you love where one or both parents are absent, or awful, or stupidly daffy, or…). Hazel’s dad: ‘Really…I wouldn’t bullshit you about this. If you were more trouble than you’re worth, we’d just toss you out on the streets.’ For another, while love interest Augustus is very charming, he’s not the most interesting person in the book; nor is there a sense that Hazel wouldn’t be who she is without him.
The book’s title comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves’. (Note: Even this one line makes me tear up now. Like Lev Grossman, I’ll cop to crying over this book. Like, copious weeping in public kind of crying. Like telling a co-worker on the tram to ‘Please just go away, I’m just crying right now’ crying. My friend’s mum would not be impressed.) In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Green explained that his experience as a chaplain to children with life-threatening diseases drove him to write this book. Green said, ‘I found myself really unfulfilled by the answers that are traditionally offered to questions of why some people suffer and why others suffer so little’. The Fault in Our Stars is a tectonically moving, humbling result of that experience, and as good a reason to overcome snitty book prejudices as any.