Why did I put off reading this YA novel for so long? Maybe because I’m suspicious of books which top the bestseller charts. I don’t want to be disappointed when it turns out they don’t justify the hype. But… if you haven’t read this, for the very same reason, then I say go for it.
First published in 2012, John Green’s sixth novel is basically a romance, but different from any other romance I’ve read. Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters meet at a young people’s cancer support group in Indiana. Hazel (who narrates the story) is charmed by his wit and somewhat eccentric nature. She doesn’t think that romance is for her – after all, she has a terminal illness and wheels an oxygen canister around – but Augustus is really interested in her and says she’s beautiful. She’s attracted to him too, and doesn’t mind that he has lost a leg to cancer. She introduces him to her favourite book (which is also narrated by a girl with cancer) and together they hatch a mission to find out some answers about the story from the author, Peter Van Houten.
I already suspected there would be no conventionally happy ending to this novel. It’s realistic, exploring how teens and their parents cope with the certainty that young lives will be cut short, just when the adventures of adulthood should be beginning. The focus, however, is on the relationship between Hazel and Augustus, and also how people with cancer are stereotyped as ‘heroes’, ‘fighters’, ‘survivors’ and (in Hazel’s words) ‘professional cancer sufferers’ at the expense of their individualities. In a way this book is a celebration of life, despite its preoccupation with dying. Hazel finds true love when she is least expecting it and for the moment there is happiness. And I have to mention the dark humour of the characters. Humour is a very human way of coping with situations and the teens shock people around them by laughing at cancer, at their failing organs, at the process of dying. There is nothing they can do about dying… but they can laugh, and they can love.
This book is character-driven and the likeable narrative style holds up the story. In the wrong hands, it could’ve turned out sentimental, grandly tragic rather than bittersweet. I’m so impressed by John Green’s talent and will definitely read more of his books.