Dutton, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-525-47881-2
Contemporary Fiction, 2012
Hazel Dean Lancaster is 17, and she has cancer – Stage IV thyroid cancer, which has since metastasized to her lungs. Augustus Waters is also 17, osteosarcoma.They meet one day in a cancer support group that neither of them would cheerfully attend if given a choice, and it’s chemistry – the good kind, not the kind that gives rise of things like irradiation and drugs with painful side effects – right from the moment when Augustus decides that Hazel is the most special snowflake. Hey, don’t blame them, they are all going to die soon, so let’s not begrudge them the opportunity to get laid before eating the big one.
The Fault in Our Stars is their love story… no, wait, let me rephrase that. Common opinion is that this is a melodramatic but moving young adult love story, but it’s not just that. This story is mostly about making peace and finding closure, although there is always this part that fears, if only a little, the inevitability of death and hurting the ones left behind. It’s also about cancer.
Now, I’m at a stage in my life where I’ve loved and lost people to cancer, and some other diseases. While I am fortunate in that the cells in my body have yet to decide to go out of control – although there was once a breast tumor scare, and a suspicious nodule in my thyroid gland, all of which fortunately turned out to be benign lumps – I have become very jaded when it comes tearjerkers that use cancer as an excuse to bring on the eek-eek-eek. These stories either turn the cancer patient into some kind of beautiful martyr, or a fragile victim that brings out the best in others when they stumble over one another to make this walking bag of tumors at ease during her final days. Once this person croaks, usually with a beatific smile on her face as her eyes close and her face falls gently to one side, usually towards the cutest kid that would bawl like a police siren, beautiful music would play as the credits roll while that kid bawls one last time, “Mommy! I love you!” or something while the noble husband or boyfriend holds the kid tightly in his embrace.
Such stories are horrible because watching or reading them make me feel like I’m somehow cheapening the memories of those I’ve lost, trivializing their emotions and pain.
The funny thing about The Fault in Our Stars is that it is guilty of many of the things that make me grit my teeth, but it also captures perfectly that painfully quiet moment, the lull of peace during a relapse that everyone knows wouldn’t last, when all you would think of is that, one, the moment is everything you’d wish it could be, and two, you desperately wish time would stop because you never want to know what the next page would bring.
It is easy to accuse Hazel’s cynicism as some kind of clichéd portrayal of the typical angst-ridden teen (made more special with cancer), but the cynicism has a painfully honest ring to it. Hazel is cynical even as the people around her, including some cancer patients in relapse, enforce some kind of tyranny of cheerfulness – insisting that having cancer is a mark of courage and if we think positive thoughts, everything would feel so much better; a tyranny that often forces the cancer patient to suppress her fears and insecurities inside so that other people around her wouldn’t feel depressed or affected by the downsides of her cancer. She, Augustus, and Augustus’s friend Isaac all treat their cancers with an irreverence that would seem insensitive and crude to some people, but it’s an irreverence that is necessary to keep living each day.
Having laid the foundation of a heartbreaking tearjerker with all these elements, the author proceeds to create a rather indulgent and sentimental tale that nonetheless gets under my skin. By the last page, I am rather startled to feel tears running down my cheeks, as I’m determined to be cynical and resist all his efforts to pull a Korean drama on me. And then there’s this heaviness in my chest – maybe it’s just my heart temporarily breaking.
Having said all that, this book isn’t great by any means. The romance is easily the most banal and insipid part of this story. Augustus isn’t a real character – he is the fantasy of that good-looking, muscular, popular guy (or rather, used to be popular until he has cancer and people eventually drift away – another realistic element in this story – who immediately puts the heroine on the pedestal. He exists to love the heroine, validate her status as the special cancer patient who’s unlike any other, and make her feel cherished and loved. Of course she loves him back. How could any woman not love a guy who immediately say things like this barely a day into their acquaintance?
“There!” Augustus almost shouted. “Hazel Grace, you are the only teenager in America who prefers reading poetry to writing it. This tells me so much. You read a lot of capital-G great books, don’t you?”
It’s every bookish girl’s dream. A popular guy, one of the cool kids, finally noticing her as special. All her perceived flaws are actually diamonds and rubies in his eyes. She doesn’t have to change, as everything she loves and does makes her utterly beautiful and special. Without having to go great lengths to express herself, she has him convinced that she is smart, gorgeous, unique, special, everything in his eyes. All she has to do is to breathe and make sarcastic comebacks, and he’s a goner. As far as young adult wish fulfillment goes, the author can’t be more transparent and blatant about this if he takes a sledgehammer into my forehead. It’s probably a good thing that they aren’t going to last to their fifties, because I personally believe that having a lover who believes you to be perfect is the fastest way to not grow as a person, and you’d eventually resent the hell out of him because you feel that there is something missing in your life but you never develop the maturity or awareness to know what that is.
Because the first half or so of this book is all about Augustus all but licking his tongue all over Hazel’s body in a cringe-inducing display of unrealistic instant “I know you are perfect so I love you!” nonsense, this book takes a while to get me to stop rolling up my eyes. It is only when the cancer rears its ugly head that things become predictably more heartrending to read. And that’s when all the beautiful honesty the author has sown in this story start to work its magic – these parts may be sentimental and, occasionally, implausible, but they are emotionally draining and painful to read, and boy, the way these parts rip my heart to pieces is glorious. Reading this story makes me feel alive, and, as a plus, makes me remember some good times with loved ones that have moved on, and I can’t help but to smile despite the fact that I am hurting all over from reading this thing. And then I reread the last few pages and choke up again.
The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t feel exploitative to me, not when the element of honesty underlying every word in this story makes it easy for me to forgive any lapse or excursion into creative liberties for the sake of good storytelling. Yes, it does occasionally turn cancer into a romantic fetish, but that’s mostly because Augustus is a horribly transparent example of a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and the unfortunate implication is minimized by the author using Augustus to also show cancer patients at their most vulnerable.
So yes, this book has its share of insipid and banal attempts at teen romance, made even pretentious by the fact that these people all talk like… well, John Green instead of actual teens – and yes, I’m aware that the author pokes fun at this too through Hazel’s impression of her favorite literary fiction author. That doesn’t change the fact that these “teenagers” speak in such a preposterously bombastic way that they’d be universally mocked were they not cancer patients. Despite all these, the emotions, the pain, and the determination to keep one’s head up and keep living, and yes, loving, come what may all resonate with me in all their real and painful glory. I do like this one at the end of the day. I do.
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