This is a story of lives lived out in a compacted time due to cancer. I will not give the line that these two lived more in their brief time together than most live in longer lives, although that may be true. I will say that their time together is authentically loving. I think that is both the tragedy and the allure of the book. Well, the writing might be a bit of a draw as well, of course. I’m reminded of that famous Camus line: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” If this were simply a tragedy, people would sense that they ought to read it, but never would. If this were simply a snarky take on an utterly rapacious disease, it would become a cult classic and treasured for one liners (which, surely, it is). This is a beautifully written tale of witty, bright teens dealing with life, love and cancer with care and humor. The tears flow as much from the sense of humor as from the pain and loss. It’s precisely because they’re willing to look at their lives head on and with humor and hate, with cleverness and crying that we are so moved.
In the midst of their struggle with cancer, Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters come to love one another and help each other look for meaning in their lot in life. They often do this by reflecting on people, games, books and ideas other than cancer. They would, as Lewis Carroll gave us:
…talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”
Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872
Their favorite thing, however, is the fictional work An Imperial Affliction authored by Peter Van Houten. This provides the fodder for their discussions and seems to provide the most comfort in being “understood.” It avoids the many platitudes and conventional wisdom through which they must navigate. A crucial point in this reflecting through fiction comes from Cassius’ conversation with Brutus prior to their attack on Caesar:
Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves
Julius Caesar – Shakespeare
The point made by Van Houten is that there is plenty of fault in our stars; there is much in our circumstances for which we’re not responsible; for Augustus and Hazel Grace, this would be cancer. I would have to agree. There is much for which I may claim no credit: parents who loved me unconditionally, relatively good health, a bride who has loved and accepted me for over 20 years and children who care for one another (and mostly show it). Most of all, I am not responsible for a loving God who gave His only son to die and pay my deserved penalty for my sin. (Full disclosure: somewhat obviously, I am an orthodox Christian, not the Greek or Russian kind, but the Luther and Calvin sort.) You may be surprised that I so clearly love a book that is so irreverent. It appears to me that its irreverence is directed at a saccharine-coated, empty, sentimental, “Christianity”, not the one where the Son of God goes to a cross for those who trust in Him. I applaud the book’s rejection of tripe and its honest struggle for meaning ala:
Given the final futility of our struggle, is the fleeting jolt of meaning that art gives us valuable? Or is the only value in passing the time as comfortably as possible? What should a story seek to emulate, Augustus? A ringing alarm? A call to arms? A morphine drip? Of course, like all interrogation of the universe, this line of inquiry inevitably reduces us to asking what it means to be human and whether—to borrow a phrase from the angst-encumbered sixteen-year-olds you no doubt revile—there is a point to it all.
While I don’t believe our lives our futile and do believe there is hope in Christ, I also don’t pretend to have the answers to the horror and pain in the world. Surely much of it falls squarely on our fallen state, but why this one is so seemingly blessed and that one cut off short, I don’t know. I do know the gracious love of Christ and that is enough. Do not ever suggest, however, that knowing God’s grace makes anyone immune from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune;” it does, however, enable us to weather it better. As Mr. Green points out on multiple occasions, “Pain demands to be felt.”
Just for the record – Cancer sucks. Diabetes sucks. Death sucks.
Now for the writing. First, any time you receive a missive from Peter Van Houten, you receive great writing; witness the reflection of our futile struggle above. Not only is the dialog crisp, devoid of cliché and abundant in snarkiness, it is some of the most quotable writing today. This is the epitome of sharp, witty and thoughtful YA literature. Some of the quotes you’ll see peppered across fan art on the internet are:
You realize that trying to keep your distance from me will not lessen my affection for you,” he said. “I guess?” I said. “All efforts to save me from you will fail,” he said
Why would you even like me? Haven’t you put yourself through enough of this?” I asked, thinking of Caroline Mather [former girlfriend who died from cancer] You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are.
My thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations.
I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?
Ad infinitum. Many more quotes abound. Witness Indy Taylor’s quotable construct:
As is my habit, I jumped between the Kindle and Audible versions of the book using Whispersync for Voice. Kate Rudd had a challenge set before her in the narration of the book: breathless but snarky cancer-ridden teenage girl, confident but sensitive teenage boy and Dutch accents. She must cry and laugh but enunciate enough that we understand her. She does all of this and more. She refers to her work as performing a book, not narrating it. I think that’s an accurate assessment. I especially like how she portrays Augustus Waters’ confidence in his pacing as well as his tone. Admirably done Ms. Rudd.
If I haven’t been clear so far, let me be so now – I whole-heartedly encourage you to read the book; you might want to have a few tissues by your side both for tears of laughter and of pain.