OK, this is a book about teenagers with cancer. Terminal cancer. This could have been a depressing book, but I didn’t find it so — though it certainly has its share of sadness. Even the dust jacket warns you:
“Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.”
You’ve probably heard it said, “Young people think they’re immortal, and that they’ll never grow old.” (The last part is true enough in Hazel’s case.) And today’s generation of young people, just like every recent generation before it, is often dismissed as spoiled, narcissistic, shallow, and lazy. If that’s true, why is this smart, unflinching story so wildly popular with said young people? Why does a book for teenagers deal with the issues of mortality more seriously and more intelligently than most of what you find in the adult world? And this isn’t an anomaly. Both the Harry Potter books and The Hunger Games trilogy face death pretty squarely. (I can’t comment on Twilight — I haven’t read those.)
I’m not going to say too much about the plot here. The premise is that Hazel, age 16, is terminal but is temporarily stabilized with some wonder drug. Even so, she carries an oxygen tank with her and is in and out of the hospital. She knows her days are numbered. So do her parents. She meets a boy named Augustus in a support group. His cancer is in remission. They hit it off and she tells him about her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction (not a real book, by the way), by a Dutch author named Peter Van Houten. She’s obsessed with the book, really, for reasons that become clear later on. Augustus helps arrange a trip to Amsterdam through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Meanwhile, their friend Isaac, who has already lost an eye to cancer, is about to lose his other eye.
This is why I’m not saying much about the plot. It sounds bleak. So much of the book’s joy is in the telling, in the likability of the characters, their wittiness and intelligence, their vulnerability and honesty (though they aren’t always honest with each other), and author John Green’s ability to find humor in the situation. Green is honest. He makes fun of the clichés and the insensitivity of people who treat dying people differently, sometimes withdrawing or being false or treating them like little children. He doesn’t sugarcoat it, and his characters aren’t always brave and unselfish.
And while the story isn’t constantly deep, the characters wrestle with the big questions of life and death and meaning and love. Will my life have meaning? Will I make a difference? Will I be remembered? Is love — true love — possible? But because of circumstances, the time frame is compressed. Instead of a lifetime, the arc of a life story in months, maybe weeks. And I think that’s one of things that’s so powerful about this story. If you’re young, you look at those questions as they stretch out over an unknown and unfathomable expanse of decades. This story gives everything a great immediacy. The characters can’t just wait and hope that everything will resolve itself over the years. They have to deal with everything right now.
It’s one of the most honest books I’ve read about dying… which also makes it one of the most honest books about living.
I’m only going to quote one small section, without context to avoid spoilers. I said the whole book isn’t deep (a lot of it is fun, really!), but here is one of the deep parts:
“Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy. Outlasting death. We all want to be remembered. I do, too. That’s what bothers me most, is being another unremembered casualty in the ancient and inglorious war against disease.
“I want to leave a mark.
“But… The marks humans leave are too often scars. You build a hideous minimall or start a coup or try to become a rock star and you think, ‘They’ll remember me now,’ but (a) they don’t remember you, and (b) all you leave behind are more scars. Your coup becomes a dictatorship. Your minimall becomes a lesion…
“We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the groundwater with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths. I can’t stop pissing on fire hydrants. I know it’s silly and useless — epically useless in my current state — but I am an animal like any other.
“Hazel is different. She walks lightly… She walks lightly upon the earth. Hazel knows the truth. We’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either.
“People will say it’s sad that she leaves a lesser scar, that fewer remember her, that she was loved deeply but not widely. But it’s not sad… It’s triumphant. It’s heroic. Isn’t that the real heroism? Like the doctors say: First, do no harm.”
So read it. Or, if you must, you can wait for the movie, which, from the look of the trailer appears to be quite faithful to the book: