“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
-Cassius, in Julius Caesar
This was my first cancer book. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, came out a year ago. Hazel Grace is a 16-year-old cancer patient who comes to terms with her terminal illness in a unique way when she meets fellow cancer patient and amputee Augustus Waters. This is neither a cancer book or a romance or a comedy. But it will behave like all of those. Green’s novel gives us tragicomedy in a way only greats like Shakespeare knew how.
The book begins with Hazel’s hook:
“Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”
This book hurts. Like, you hurt for the characters. But as “Gus” himself says, “pain demands to be felt.” For cancer patients especially, sometimes the pain comes, and there is no cuddly phrase sewn into a pillow that will help. You just have to feel it and live until you die. Green successfully sets up a plot that realistically enters the world of cancer patients, but without being a gloomy, tear-ushering sob story. Part of the genius of Green’s story is how the personalities of the characters both shape and are shaped by their cancer experience. There’s something irreverent yet beautiful about the treatment of life and death in the mind’s of these characters. Hazel and Augustus serve as models for teenagers caught in between life and death. They refuse to ask for our sympathy; they refuse to be super-crips. They are who they are, and they make us laugh and think.
What is possibly my favorite aspect of the novel is the novel contained within it, the novel Hazel obsesses over: An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten. The novel is about a girl sick with cancer who’s mother meets a Dutch flower salesman who might or might not be a con artist. What makes the novel famous is that it ends mid-sentence. This in itself is a microcosm for the surprise of both tragedy and comedy of death. What is even more unique is that the novel is not real, but was created by Green for his own novel. I only wish An Imperial Affliction were real.
In The Fault in Our Stars we ask whether everyone has a fatal flaw, whether the rare and fragile are abused because they are special, whether there is an afterlife and whether we care for there to be one, and whether the universe makes any demands on us. We perceive these questions through the eyes of a couple of cancer-ridden teenagers just trying to make sense of the life they’ve been given, and could be robbed of any minute.
If you’re looking for an introduction to well-written “sick lit”, or want a contemporary novel that echoes of Shakespearean tragedy and comedy all at once, let The Fault in Our Stars grab you.
Here’s a special treat: John Green reads the first chapter of his novel, The Fault in Our Stars.