At age twenty-two, John Green worked as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital.
Let’s take a moment and consider all the implications of that, and why he is making a colossal understatement when he described the experience as “devastating.” That was about twelve years ago, and Green has said in interviews that because of this experience, he’s spent twelve years trying to write a book about kids with cancer – not poster children of strength and courage and illness-granted wisdom, but real kids and their families and friends who have to cope with the fact that they will die young.
All novels are personal, but Green’s novels seem, to me, to be especially so. But this one is personal in a different way. With this novel, Green isn’t trying to exorcize the memory of the girl who stomped on his heart in high school. This goes deeper than high school romance and Manic Pixie Dream Girl angst. This is about life, death, illness, love, heroism, and how a sixteen-year-old is supposed to deal with the fact that she will die and leave everyone she loves behind. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been watching vlogbrothers videos for five years and feel like I’m actually acquainted with John Green, but this is the most deeply personal novel I’ve ever read.
This is not, as Hazel Lancaster might say, a Cancer Book. None of the cancer patients in this story have a wisdom beyond their years, and they do not stoically accept the fact that they will die or fight heroically. Hazel Lancaster, a terminal sixteen-year-old who has to carry an oxygen tank everywhere because “my lungs suck at being lungs” is refreshingly real – not manic, not a pixie, not a dream girl. She reads Great Books and watches America’s Next Top Model marathons. Augustus Waters, her amputee friend, wants desperately to leave a lasting impression on the world and philosophizes about heroism, and his favorite book is a novelization of a video game. (can I say how much I love that an author can establish a character’s intelligence without just telling us that they love reading Austen yes Stephenie Meyer I’m looking at you) Everything here is real, especially the diseases. There isn’t any bullshit about dying gracefully here, because cancer is ugly and unpleasant, and Green makes you feel the pain of Hazel’s lungs struggling to breathe and the headaches, and he makes you see the vomit and the urine. (Remember how in A Walk to Remember, Mandy Moore has been secretly dying of leukemia the whole time but looks great even on her deathbed? Nicholas Sparks can fuck right off for that insult to real cancer patients) Most importantly, Hazel and Augustus are not defined by their cancer. It consumes their lives, but it doesn’t define them. On every page, it’s clear: this is a story told by someone who hasn’t known just one person with cancer, but has seen a multitude of children with terminal diseases, and has tried to find some way to comfort them and their families.
It’s for that reason that I don’t feel like I can review this like a normal book. John Green didn’t write this story for me, and so I don’t feel like I have any place saying that it’s amazing and beautiful and heartbreaking. And I certainly can’t criticize any of its faults. All I can say, really, is that you have to read this for yourself, and go from there.
Okay, you guys know me better than that. I have one big complaint, which I will describe here, and all I ask is that you remember that I still gave this five stars.
Augustus Waters, in the first few chapters, comes off as a pretentious douche. When Hazel first meets him at a cancer support group, they’re talking afterwards and Augustus takes out a cigarette and puts it in his mouth. Hazel, who you’ll recall is dying because her lungs cannot function, freaks out and shouts at him, “…even though you HAD FREAKING CANCER you give money to a company in exchange for the chance to acquire YET MORE CANCER.” Augustus explains that he doesn’t smoke the cigarettes, he just puts them in his mouth (no, really) because “They don’t kill you unless you light them…And I’ve never lit one. It’s a metaphor, see: you put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.”
Augustus, I love you, but you’re full of shit right there. Notice how he didn’t address Hazel’s perfectly valid point that, by buying cigarettes, Augustus is giving money to the people who cause cancer? Because here’s the thing: you can say to a cigarette company, “I’m buying your cigarettes as a metaphor, but I won’t light them so I’m taking away their power” and they’ll stop listening at “I’m buying your cigarettes” because that’s all they care about. And it’s a shit metaphor in any case: you can walk around a mall with a shotgun and explain to people that because it’s unloaded you’ve taken away its power, but you’re still going to get arrested.
So that was annoying, as was Augustus’s general air of overly-charming pretentious skeeziness in the beginning. But I forgive him for it, because lest we forget, he is seventeen. If his character was twenty-two he’d be the most obnoxious jackass on the planet, but because he’s just a kid, I was willing to forgive him. Still hate the cigarette thing, though.
Verdict: five out of five stars