Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelic zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.
Hazel Lancaster says that in “The Fault in Our Stars,” a novel that leaps off the page and makes you think of those books in your life, and more — that this book knows you so well it reads you. That’s a pretty neat trick.
But that’s not John Green’s best trick. That one is astonishing: Days after I finished reading his book, I was still shaking. Family and friends would confirm that “The Fault in Our Stars” was all I could talk about. I hated that I’d read it because there was nothing I wanted to do more than read it again for the first time.
Two facts make this a very unlikely obsession:
1) This is a Young Adult (YA) novel — a book for teenagers.
2) Both main characters are teenagers who have cancer.
But it’s not like this is some kind of cheesy teenage “Love Story.”
It’s more like “The Fault in Our Stars” is the best novel — the smartest, most clever, most emotional-but-not-exploitive adult novel — you’ve read in a long, long time, but somehow kids found out about it first and claimed it as their own. Which they have done, big time, and in astonishing numbers. Last year, while he was finishing it, Green announced the book could be pre-ordered; it immediately shot to #1 on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble lists. And when “The Fault in Our Stars” was finally published, it opened on the New York Times list for Children’s Chapter Books at #1 and stayed there for five weeks. Three months after “The Fault in Our Stars” was published, NPR did a survey of the best YA novels… ever. “The Fault in Our Stars” came in at #4. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Why the love?
Simple as this: John Green doesn’t write teenagers. He writes smart, funny, verbal, real people who happen to find themselves in young bodies. This is fortunate, because the young — the best of them, anyway — are brimming over with Thoughts and Ideals and Questions. They… just… care. Deeply. As we used to care before we grew up and found ourselves playing games that had more to do with Success and Money than Truth and Eternity.
Yeah, but this is “a cancer book.”
No. It isn’t. Hazel, the 16-year-old narrator, is very clear about that, and she ought to know. When she was 13, she almost died, and there was that grim scene in the ICU when the cancer was joined by pneumonia and her mother asked “Are you ready?” and she said she was and her dad was trying not to sob and then — surprise, surprise — her cancer doctor managed to drain her lungs and she got admitted to a trial for a drug that didn’t work 70% of the time but it worked in her, and now she’s 16 and going to Wednesday night Support Group meetings.
Is Hazel going to tell you a story that becomes a cancer book?
“Cancer books suck,” she says. “Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy.”
She knows better. That’s because she has a favorite book — the book she‘s an evangelist for — called “An Imperial Affliction,” and in that book, the main character “decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera.” A bad joke, but you get the idea: “Cancer is a side effect of the process of dying, as is almost everything, really.”
That attitude makes Hazel an unlikely candidate for romance, but one Wednesday at Support Group she meets Augustus Waters, who is 17 and shockingly handsome. He had “a little touch of osteosarcoma a year and a half ago,” and half of one leg had to be amputated, but he’s fine now. The only reason he’s come to the meeting is to support a friend who will, in a month, have both eyes removed.
Augustus isn’t put off by the tubes in Hazel’s nose or the oxygen tank she drags around with her. To him, she’s “a millennial Natalie Portman. Like ‘V for Vendetta’ Natalie Portman.” To her, he’s “a tenured professor in the Department of Slightly Crooked Smiles with a dual appointment in the Department of Having a Voice That Made My Skin Feel Like Skin.”
Love, in short. But it doesn’t come easily and it doesn’t happen fast. There is considerable uncertainty, in fact, given his romantic past and her terminal condition. So they talk about Magritte, Zeno’s tortoise paradox, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They make jokes about their friends in the world of the professionally ill: “I’ve gotten really hot since you went blind.” They share odd facts: There are about 98 billion dead people.
At last they open to one another. Their romance is epic, and then some, and they’re not ashamed to cop to it. And, along the way, they slip in terrific little truths, lines that make you reach for a pen: “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have some say in who hurts you.”
You’ll notice that I’m not saying much about what happens in this novel. A lot does, and you don’t see it coming — there is a surprise every few pages. And then you get to page 313, and it’s over. How did that happen? How did you smile so much? How did you cry so hard and yet feel cleansed and triumphant at the end? And if John Green is so good, why does he write YA novels?
Here’s the cheat sheet on Green: He’s got a huge and sincere interest in kids. He’d like to “increase awesome and decrease suck,” so he and his brother launched a web site for kids called Nerdfighters, which looks very much like a real community that hasn’t yet been discovered and ruined by media. And Green and his brother make frequent videoblogs. In one of them, he talks about the job he used to have: as a chaplain in a children’s hospital. And he recalls the wisdom of his boss: “John, don’t just do something, stand there.”
I’m sure you understand what that means. There is a time for bustling and helping, and then there is a time for standing there and bearing witness. Reading “The Fault in Our Stars” is like that. A few compelling characters, a smart plot, snappy dialogue — of course you’ll witness that. And in the witnessing of a romance that makes huge declarations and enormous promises, the book gets to you; as Gus and Hazel fall in love with one another, you fall in love with them. And when, really, was the last book you can name that did that for you?
It’s not a cancer book. Cancer books suck. This book does everything but.
John Green was a friend of Esther Earl, a kid who was the inspiration for Hazel. This was the videoblog he made after she died. The title: “Rest in Awesome, Esther.”