The idea of a book about children with cancer sounds horrible: so easy to slip into stereotypical and boring cliches, to be overly sentimental and maudlin. But John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is nothing less than extraordinary for its utter avoidance of these tropes.
Stars is the story of one Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenage girl who has cancer. She begins the book by telling us that her mother thinks she is depressed; Hazel says that in everything she has read about cancer, depression is listed as a side effect of the disease. But Hazel, in the first of many themes, disagrees. “Depression,” she says, “is a side effect of dying” (Green, 2012 p. 3).
Hazel attends a Kids with Cancer Support Group in a church, where, she says everybody wants “to beat not only cancer itself, but the other people in the room” (Green, 2012 p. 5). It’s here that she first meets Augustus Waters, there are the invitation of a boy named Isaac. Augustus catches her eye and then becomes more attractive when he starts making puns about Isaac, who is about to have surgery that will leave him blind. This sense of humor—dark and tremendously witty—is part of the heart of this book.
Augustus had “a touch of osteosarcoma” and lost a leg, but as the book starts he is in remission (Green 2012 p11). After he notes in that first group that he worries about oblivion, Hazel tells him that nothing will survive, that everything that humans do will vanish and no one will remember any of it, and if it worries him, she says, she suggests he ignore it. This pulls Augustus up short, and after that he and Hazel become friends.
According to Hazel, Cancer Kids—as she calls them—have a shorthand. What’s your story, they ask each other, and then they tell one another their diagnoses, their history with the disease. In Hazel’s case, she explains, she had a near lethal bout with thyroid cancer. In the first of many (many, many) heartbreaking passages she describes her mother asking if she was ready, and then thinking she was about to die; but then they managed to clear some fluid from her lungs and gave her an experimental drug that worked. Hazel is clear that it is not a cure; she is still terminal. But she is also in the strange netherworld of knowing she will die way too early and not knowing when that will be.
Into this netherworld walks Augustus Waters. The two become closer and closer, bonding over bad jokes and deep talks. Hazel introduces Augustus to her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, which—appropriately enough—is about a girl dying of cancer. The book ends in the middle of a sentence, to replicate death, since life ends that way too: in the middle of a sentence. Hazel wants to know what happens, of course, and Augustus uses his Wish (as in the Make A Wish foundation) to take her to Holland to meet the author.
The author ends up being a complete jerk. Although Hazel and Augustus enjoy parts of their trip anyway—having sex for the first time, visiting a very fancy restaurant with delicious champagne—they are both surprised and disturbed by the author’s refusal to tell them anything about the book and to treat them civilly.
After a visit to the Anne Frank museum, the two return to the hotel, where Green throws a giant curveball. Augustus—who has what is usually a fairly curable kind of cancer—is dying.
After he tells Hazel, he grimaces, and she asks him if it hurts. No, he says, but “I like this world. I like drinking champagne. I like not smoking…and now I don’t even get a battle. I don’t get a fight.” When Hazel tries to reassure him that he can battle his cancer, he is dismissive: “What am I doing battle with? My cancer. And what is my cancer? My cancer is me. The tumors are made of me. They’re made of me as surely as my brain and my heart are made of me. It’s a civil war, Hazel Grace, with a predetermined winner” (Green, 2012 p. 216).
The two return to the US. Augustus gets sicker and sicker, and at some point he summons Hazel and their friends Isaac to the church so that they can eulogize him while he is still there to see it. Both deliver eulogies that will crack your heart wide open.
Hazel thinks it is unbearable, to have her best friend and her first love die, and she gives a tremendously eloquent description of pure, unadulterated grief:
“When you go into the ER, one of the first things they ask you to do is to rate your pain on a scale of one to ten….once…it felt like my chest was on fire, flames licking the insides of my ribs fighting for a way to burn out of my body…the nurse asked about the pain…and I held up nine fingers….Later, the nurse…said ‘you know how I know you’re a fighter? You called a ten a nine.’ But that wasn’t quite right. I called it a nine because I was saving my ten. And here it was, the great and terrible ten, slamming me again and again as I lay still and alone in my bed staring at the ceiling, the waves tossing me against the rocks then pulling me back out to sea so they could launch me again into the jagged face of the cliff, leaving me floating faceup on the water, undrowned (Green, 2012 p. 263)”.
Green’s novel doesn’t have a happy ending, particularly. How could it? Augustus is dead and Hazel is dying. In the end, she finds a letter Augustus wrote to Afflictions’ author, which closes with “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she does too” (Green, 2012 p. 313).
And Hazel does.
There are some recurring themes in Stars. One is side effects of dying; Hazel informs us that most things are. Nostalgia, among them. Another is the idea that kids with cancer are grenades: Hazel is constantly worried that she will destroy her parents, and the people that she loves. She worries about letting Augustus love her—as much as she can control that anyway—because then when she dies he will be gutted. She is terrified for her parents, the loss they will feel when she dies. Another oft-repeated theme in the novel: “pain demands to be felt.” It does no good to bottle it up. The title comes from Shakespeare, when Cassius says “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/but in ourselves”—but, as the novel notes, “there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars” (Green, 2012 p. 112). There is, indeed, a whole lot of fault in Hazel’s stars, and in Augustus’.
Stars is unique in how utterly matter-of-fact it is. I chose novels about death that were not, on the whole, terribly maudlin; but Green least of all. His characters scorn the idea of battling cancer. Instead, they are refreshingly pragmatic about the disease. Cancer, after all, is only trying to survive: they are merely victims of mutating cells.
Green captures the gallows humor, the exhilaration of first love, the ways in which teenagers might take on different affects to see what fits, perfectly. He is not concerned with playing to the reader’s emotions. He is concerned with giving us a glimpse into what it is like to be a teenager, in love for the first time, and to have to balance that with the horrible knowledge that you are going to die—and then to find that it was your love that was the grenade, all along.