If you Google The Fault in Our Stars, you will be gifted with literally thousands of pages of reviews. As a New York Times best seller, John Green’s latest YA novel is pretty much the opposite of an indie hidden gem but that’s not stopping me from telling the world why I kind of love it. I think Hazel Grace said it best when she said, “Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” This is one of those books for me. Let’s be clear. This is a cancer book and if that’s not your thing I will not be offended if you turn around and make a quick exit but if you don’t hit the back button on your browser, I’ll explain why this one is worth putting on your “To Read” list.
The Fault in Our Stars is the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster, diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 13 and hanging on at 16 thanks to an experimental drug and her trusty oxygen tank, Phillip. Concerned about her mental well-being, Hazel’s parents coerce her into a chemo kid support group where she meets Augustus “Gus” Waters. Gus is a former basketball player who had his leg stolen by osteosarcoma and spends much of his time waxing philosophically with an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips. Both clever, quirky and painfully intelligent, they soon form a friendship which is solidified when Hazel encourages Gus to read her very favorite book, An Imperial Affliction. The novel, about a girl with cancer, ends right in the middle of the sentence. Together, the one-legged boy and the artificially oxygenated girl decide they must find out the ending of the book, even if it means flying all the way to Amsterdam, where the author lives, to find out. Adventure plus ensues.
And that review makes it sound a little bit like every cancer book on the market, which it is, to a degree but here is where The Fault in Our Stars diverges from most. The characters are not a vehicle for cancer but instead an honest and tragic example of the human experience. How does Mr. Green do this? He volunteered as a chaplain at a children’s hospital, spending time with children suffering from cancer and the families who sit and watch and wait and pray and laugh with them. Then he spent over a decade trying to do justice to those people by writing a novel that portrayed their normal with grace and authenticity.
As someone who’s in the chemo kid club with only a single degree of separation, that means a lot to me. I’m not a cancer sufferer or cancer survivor but I am a cancer sibling. My brother Spencer had leukemia three times over an eleven year span, starting when he was seven and I was eleven. And in that time, I spent a lot of my life in hospitals watching kids do stuff they shouldn’t have to do. And that is mostly what people see, they see bald kids and puking kids and exhausted kids and legless kids but they don’t really see the people. They just see the disease. Dynamic people are turned into caricatures of themselves by pretty much everyone they know. People offer Hallmark card quotes about the will of God and always looking on the bright side and silver linings ; then they disappear off the face of the Earth.
This book, this is the one that lays that all out. It calls out the bullshit people say to kids with cancer. It discusses the fact that people who you think love you might just leave when you need them the most. It highlights the fact that cancer isn’t everything. People with cancer are still people who love and laugh and want to be accepted just like the rest of us. They don’t ascend up onto a pious and understanding pedestal at their diagnosis. They get pissed and they fall in love and they get hurt and they eat breakfast and they laugh at America’s funniest home videos; their world keeps turning just like it does for everyone else. So that’s why this one doesn’t suck; because John Green cared enough to create characters that would do justice to the real chemo kids and put them into a beautiful, genuine and poignant book about being a teenager without the luxury of an invincibility complex.