About 100 pages into this book, I felt like there was a very large, very strong hand gripping my heart, threatening to rip it out completely at any moment. Also about 100 pages in, I tried to explain to my boyfriend how the book was starting to “get to me”, and I couldn’t even finish my sentence. I had not felt this way (read: emotionally distraught) this consistently in about three years, four months and 21 days.
The Fault In Our Stars is a cancer book. It is told from the perspective of 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, who has been diagnosed with stage IV thyroid cancer and is kept alive by a portable oxygen tank and tubes in her nose. The only form of socialization Hazel engages in is a weekly support group for kids like herself — recently diagnosed, fighting, in remission — and during one of these meetings she encounters Augustus Waters. Augustus Waters is a 17-year-old boy in remission from osteosarcoma, the result of which was a partial leg amputation, and he is a boy with whom Hazel, and the reader, instantaneously falls in love, despite her best efforts not to. Two under-the-age-of-18 cancer patients with great senses of humor falling in love; it can’t get any more bittersweet than that, eh?
The middle of the book focuses on Hazel’s and Augustus’s “wish”, through a Make A Wish Foundation kind of thing, to go to Amsterdam to visit the author of Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, because the book ends in such an abrupt way that she must know what happens to all the characters. Hazel already used her “wish” to go to Disney World when she was first diagnosed, so Augustus uses his wish for her. (I know, I know.) The trip is a bit of a letdown in terms of meeting the author, as he turns out to be rather repulsive, but it brings Hazel and Augustus even closer, physically and emotionally. (I was glad John Green didn’t go into too much detail about their physical closeness; it felt like an extremely private moment for them, like, even more private than non-cancer-patient sex.) However, toward the end of the trip Augustus discloses some upsetting information: He is no longer in remission. During his most recent PET scan, he “lit up like a Christmas tree”, in his charismatic words.
It was while reading those exact words that I quite literally LOST IT. I mean, I cried while reading Animal Farm (what they did to Boxer!), I shed many tears over The Time Traveler’s Wife, but I was utterly beside myself with this book. You can probably guess why — it reminded me too much of what happened to my dad. He, too, had a PET scan that “lit up like a Christmas tree” in that he had tumors everywhere: lungs, ribs, spine, head. He went into the hospital for weird back pain, and he never came out (alive) because of that damn PET scan. The end of the book is the end of Augustus, how he deteriorated to the point of being unrecognizable in body and personality. Again, this hit too close to home. The person who stopped breathing early in the morning on May 30, 2010 in that stupid hospital room was not the person I knew for 22 years. The cancer, the pain and the corresponding treatments rapidly and irreversibly sucked the life out of my dad, and out of Augustus.
The irony of the situation — Hazel was hesitant to begin a relationship with Augustus because she knew she would mostly likely die soon and break his heart, then boom!, the tables are turned — is nauseatingly painful, although not entirely unexpected, and also triggered some familiar feelings. Is it not nauseatingly, painfully ironic that my mom was diagnosed with cancer in arguably the worst possible place (brain), and just as it was decided she was miraculously in the clear her husband was diagnosed with cancer, the origin of which remains a mystery today? My mom was never given a terminal diagnosis like Hazel, but she is all right (cancer-wise), as is Hazel (and by all right I mean better than Augustus), and he is not.
“Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.” –Peter Van Houten (repulsive author of An Imperial Affliction)
Is this true, fictional man? Am I not a different person than I was three years and seven months ago, before my dad even got sick? Or was I always this person, and losing him so suddenly only accelerated the revelation of it? Some may argue that grief and loss should not change or define you, but if it’s your parent or your sibling or your friend or God forbid your child, how can it not? Before the loss you are the person who still has their mom/dad/brother/sister/friend/child, and afterward you are the person who no longer has them. Wouldn’t those two people be inherently different?
The book ends without us knowing the fate of Hazel Grace, much like her Imperial Affliction book ended without her knowing what happened to its main character, Anna. All we know is that she is living with cancer, no cure in sight, but living. The whole story is beautifully written, and I can only assume John Green knows a thing or two about this kind of pain. I understand The Fault In Our Stars will be a movie (what book isn’t made into a movie, these days?) next year with Shailene Woodley as Hazel, and if done right it will surely earn her the first of many Oscars.
Despite the big-strong-hand-gripping-my-heart feeling, which has returned tenfold as I write this review, I highly recommend The Fault In Our Stars to everyone who thinks they can handle it. (Note: I also recommend the second half be read in the privacy of your own home, not on any form of public transportation.) And to anyone who reads this book who is lucky enough to have never experienced watching someone they love go through what Hazel and Augustus go through, know this: This really happens. All the time, everywhere, every day. It is absurdly unfair, and it hurts beyond definition.