In an unfair world, age is not always the best predictor of wisdom. Such is the plight of Hazel Grace, the sixteen-year-old protagonist and narrator of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s latest hit novel. “I want more numbers than I’m likely to get,” she tells us. Long before most, Hazel has to figure out how to spend the time she has left. Should she leave a lesser impact on many or a greater impact on a few? And how can she leave her mark with only a numbered few days?
Hazel’s thyroid cancer gone rogue “has never been anything but terminal” since it was first pronounced stage four. Unlike most cancer kids who live in uncertainty, Hazel knows she will die. But when she meets the smoldering one-legged Augustus Waters at cancer support group, Hazel’s certain death takes a backseat to her newfound teenage desires. Augustus lost his leg to osteosarcoma. he Each day brings an uncertain future, although he is in remission. The two bond over Hazel’s favorite book, “An Imperial Affliction,” the story of a teenage girl and her family’s battle with cancer. Hazel’s obsession with “An Imperial Affliction” is fueled by her desire to know what will happen to the people she loves after she dies. She can bear to think of a world without her in it, so long as the people she loves can cope with her death and move on with their lives.
The conflict in this novel is not with death, but with life. “Cancer is just a side effect of dying,” Hazel tells us. She approaches death with a calm sense of inevitability. She reduces her disease to a side effect, something much more average. This clues the reader into her psyche. Hazel accepts that we are all going to die, cancer or no cancer. She accepts death’s inevitability. In other prominent young adult novels such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, death is in direct opposition to the protagonist. While Green’s novel is not a fantasy, it is still uncommon to see a teenage protagonist embrace the idea of death so fully.
The Fault in Our Stars places death squarely in between Hazel and her life. She needs a catalyst for change. Enter an attractive boy who also has cancer. In creating Gus, Green sets up an interesting reversal of gender roles. This may have been in response to criticism of Looking For Alaska. He is cast as a male version of the “manic pixie dream girl,” a trope of the static female character with eccentric personality quirks who serves as a love interest for a usually depressed or brooding male protagonist. The “manic pixie dream girl” is criticized as unrealistic, but the manic pixie dream boy is not much more so. Still, it is nice to see a female protagonist who gets a sacrificial male counterpart instead of the other way around. Gus exists solely as a love interest to further Hazel’s self-actuation. Before Gus, Hazel has written herself off. He shows her how to make the most out of the time she has. He teaches her that it’s ok for her to make her mark on this world, in the least clichéd way possible. The emotions are raw and the feeling is real.
Gus and Hazel’s relationship defies the genre conventions of the realistic young adult romance. Usually there’s an obstacle for young lovers to overcome, but it’s not often cancer, or any chronic condition for that matter. I have to hand it to John Green for tackling real people problems, a subject most of us prefer not to read about in our downtime. He quickly solves the problem of how to convince his readers that they are unlike Hazel. She is worth listening to because her story is automatically unique. Gus and Hazel aren’t the stuff of your typical young love story. He’s not secretly a vampire, but he has lost his leg in a battle with cancer. Instead of going to prom, they visit each other in the ICU. They are privy to each other’s most vulnerable and human moments, and it is more romantic than any prom. It’s difficult for any girl to find a great guy, but Hazel and her comrades live in a world of tubes, pre-planned eulogies, clinical trials, and constant hospital visits. To find love in such a world is both jarring and comforting. That spark of human connection can be found even in our darkest days.
What I find most successful about the novel is its’ ability to draw the reader into a believable world of childhood cancer. Hazel’s voice makes chronic illness a tangible experience for those who have never witnessed that struggle. She gives us humor and irony, approaching her life with just the right amount of sarcasm and seriousness. The plot is straightforward, without too many twists. Unlike other recent cultural media that have attempted to depict cancer, such as the film “50/50,” The Fault in Our Stars tackles the subject so that it is relatable to the public without being overly unrealistic or offensive. This is book is not intended for people who have cancer. That being said, the novel is well placed in a world where cancer is increasingly touching more people’s lives. Cancer has affected, and continues to affect most of us, so it is worthwhile to read an account that is beautiful in its’ realism, without being overly romanticized or frilly. This novel is worth every word because it discusses what we think but are afraid to say. And it hits us right where it hurts.
Hazel speaks of “a forever within the numbered days,” as she describes the love she’s experienced. She reminds us of what we already know, that the little infinities matter more and more as the days become fewer and fewer. We are the vessels of memory. That power is privileged and though we too will die, there is something to be said for that.