This is a book about some teenagers with cancer, but it is not at all a sob story. Since it is one of the best books I’ve ever read, it is difficult for me to do it justice with a review. I looked at other reviews and they have words and phrases I would use too: exquisite; extraordinary; tough; damn near genius; heart-wrenching; brimming with joy; elegantly plotted; touching valentine to the human spirit; beautiful, shining sentences that you just want to underline in every single colour and cut out and put on the wall and glue onto postcards; freaking amazing….
The book is narrated by Hazel, age 16, who has Stage IV thyroid cancer with lung metastases. She makes two friends at a cancer support group: Isaac, who is going blind, and Augustus, who has an amputated leg from osteosarcoma. In spite of Hazel’s attraction to Augustus, she tries to avoid him, because she feels like a grenade. I.e., it won’t be long before she blows up (that is, dies), and when she does, she doesn’t want to take any more casualties with her than necessary. Letting someone love her, she thinks, is an act of violence against him. But eventually she becomes convinced by Augustus that hurt is inevitable, and that even though you can’t prevent it, you can choose who hurts you.
Discussion: There are many issues raised in this book that are important. (And they are raised with a great deal of humor and sarcasm, so that sober points get made in a way that are all the more effective for being so funny.) Some are obvious yet often ignored, such as the way people with cancer would like to be seen as “people” rather than as “cancer victims,” and how much it hurts to be abandoned by so many others who become uncomfortable around them. Another related point is that cancer doesn’t make those who have it into martyrs and saints; they experience depression and anger and crabbiness just like anyone else. Again, they want to be accepted as “people.”
But the biggest, most recurring theme is that of the complimentary fears of oblivion and lack of opportunity to experience love and life, and how much it weighs upon these people who are destined by their stars to die young. Augustus in particular is plagued by the notion of oblivion, and Hazel by her desire to find out how things turn out for the people she loves. Together, through an unexpected opportunity, Hazel and Augustus work out their apprehensions, as well as their distress over the “inhuman nihilism of suffering” – not restricted, after all, to those who have cancer.
Generally textuality has limitations, imposing a need to fit ineffable emotional experience inside the reason-heavy framework mandated by conventions of literature. Thus emotion can be disempowered or even neutralized. John Green manages somehow to overcome this barrier. His description of the pain of the loss of a person you love is the best I’ve ever read. You might wonder: why would I want to have such pain made so real? I would answer that if you’ve ever been through it, you’ll appreciate that someone has actually figured out how to articulate it, because the common description of “it was a really bad time” just doesn’t do it!
Evaluation: Everyone who has ever searched for the meaning of life – and in particular, who has queried the significance of his or her own life, should read this eloquent disquisition on the struggle of the human spirit to leave a mark, any mark, that says to the world: I WAS HERE.
Yes, this book demands courage to read it. While there is no facile sentimentality, there is raw sorrow and pain. But even more so, there is a great deal of humor, joy, and love. In a world of books in which you get to choose which ones will hurt you, I would choose this one every time.
Note: One of the best reviews of this book I read was by the incomparable Nymeth. Check her review for a much more thorough analysis of what takes place in this book.
Published by Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., 2012