Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The fault, dear Brutus, is in our cells

A novel about two precocious teenagers dying of cancer is not the sort of book to which I’m typically drawn. In fact, with the exception of “A Wrinkle in Time,” I hadn’t read any young-adult fiction in years. But “The Fault in Our Stars” popped up on my amazon.com page a few weeks ago, so I decided to give it a go. Even though it’s “kid lit,” I was curious how a difficult topic like childhood cancer would be handled by what appeared to be a competent author (John Green).
Once I opened the book, I couldn’t put it down. This may be a book written for people decades younger than me, but I found Green’s voice to be compulsively readable. He has deftly mixed the profound with the quotidian in a beautiful story about two remarkable young people. Yes, there’s romance of the adolescent persuasion, but I liked the book instead for being so sweet, philosophical, funny and melancholy. This is no sappy “Love Story.”
The two protagonists are 16-year-olds who meet at a cancer support group. Hazel Lancaster, the narrator, is living with terminal thyroid cancer that has ravaged her lungs enough to necessitate the use of an oxygen tank wherever she goes. It’s during a support meeting that she is introduced to Augustus Waters, a once-was sports jock who has lost a leg to a malignant bone tumor and who soon becomes the object of her affection.
“The Fault in Our Stars” is not just about cancer, as the characters themselves won’t allow for that. But Hazel and Augustus are both wise beyond their years because of a shared sense of mortality that is unheard of in the typical teenager. This is partly a literary conceit, but a plausible one in this case. I’ve seen how cancer can transform character in people I’ve known, making both young and old more reflective, more patient, more complicated and, sometimes, ennobling them in unexpected ways. It doesn’t always work out this way, but in Green’s hands, our two young characters find in each other the depth and significance that everyone else in their lives seem to lack.
Hazel and Augustus are not turned into heroes, other than maybe to each other. One of them dies, of course, which is how a novel about juvenile cancer was bound to end. It’s not a happy ending, either—not poetic or even somehow right. It left me empty, but all the more appreciative of the emotional restraint of the author. There is no false hope in this story. He lets a tragedy remain a tragedy.

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