The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
I read a few books by Lurlene McDaniel about kids with cancer when I was in high school. They were blatant cry-bait, with titles like Six Months to Live and Don’t Die, My Love. They were kind of maudlin and over-the-top sweet and wallowing in sadness. I still remember that one was about a football player who got cancer, and his whole team shaved their heads to show solidarity, and before he died he planted tulip bulbs on the football field so that they bloomed in a pattern that spelled words and gave a message from heaven to his girlfriend.
The Fault in Our Stars is about two teenage cancer patients who fall in love, but it is the polar opposite of those Lurlene McDaniel paperbacks. The main characters, Hazel and Augustus, are sardonic hipsters, bookworms whose every word is a hilarious wisecrack or a sparkling piece of wisdom. They have cute, idiosyncratic ways of talking and they’re not afraid of the dark, ugly side of cancer. They’re especially interested in destroying the myth of the beautiful, strong, suffering cancer patient that McDaniel’s books did so much to perpetuate. Their illnesses force them to face existential questions that most of us have the luxury of ignoring, and they don’t flinch from offering some pretty bleak answers. The main action of the novel concerns Hazel’s favorite book, also about a sarcastic cancer patient. Augustus offers to use his “wish” to take her to Amsterdam to visit the author.
I’m not going to lie: when I was 16, Augustus have been my dream boy. It’s hard not to fall in love with this character yourself. He can talk about books, he’s interested in the big questions in life, he’s capable of grand romantic gestures as well as eloquent declarations of love, and he writes a great letter. He has grand ambitions of doing something big and important with his life, which cause him great anguish when it becomes clear that he won’t have time to do much on the scale he would like. He pursues Hazel directly from the beginning, making no mystery of the fact that he’s intrigued with her. If anything, he falls too hard, too fast, in a way that makes you wonder for a while if he’s just in love with the idea of being in love. But his sincerity soon becomes clear.
A little over halfway through the book, there’s a twist that’s sort of expected, but still fairly well-handled. You know one of them is going to die, and it’s not usually the narrator. I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s one of the best love stories I’ve read in a while.