MAY 6, 2012
IF ONLY I COULD STOP crying long enough to write about this damn book. (Since John Green is a “YA,” or Young Adult novelist, I am getting an enormous amount of flack for this from friends and family.) Hazel is sixteen. She has stage IV thyroid cancer with mets in her lungs. She is too smart for platitudes and clichés and too young to die. Her mother understands that staying in bed watching America’s Next Top Model reruns must have something to do with depression. So she sends Hazel to a support group that meets in a church basement, where kids with cancer sit in a circle that is meant to represent the heart of Christ. Hazel, who must be connected to an oxygen tank, can barely stand these weekly sessions until Augustus Waters appears one night. Him and his hot hot hotness; crooked grin, courtly insistence on her Natalie Portman-esque beauty, life-is-especially-short-so-let’s-get-living attitude. Augustus is in remission, but he has lost a leg to osteosarcoma cancer. His friend, Isaac is about to lose his remaining eye to cancer. The three friends play video games in Gus’s basement. Gus and Hazel exchange favorite books.
Hazel has three best friends; her parents, and the author of her beloved An Imperial Affliction, about a girl with cancer. The book ends mid-sentence, and Hazel wants very much to know what happens — not to the main character, that seems obvious, but to the ones she leaves behind, including the hamster. She used her Make-A-Wish Foundation wish when she was thirteen (not to go to Disneyland, Augustus groans, but alas it is so), but Gus has not used his. They will go to Amsterdam to meet the author of An Imperial Affliction.
Plot aside (and yes, it is essentially hurtling toward death, like all plots), Green has got the voices of these teenagers down so beautifully, so wholly — each unique and brimming with love and potential and rage — that the plot falls away, or at least it did for this reader. (Bring on the Oprah jokes.) I just wanted to play video games with them in the basement. The book is so good, so moving without being cloying, that for the first time in my adult reading life I deliberately did not read the ending. Left the last 15 pages. Couldn’t do it. Didn’t want to. Longed for the novel that ended mid-sentence.
(The parents in this astonishing book are appropriately in the background, but their pain is, nonetheless, almost unbearable. Hazel’s dad is a bit of a weeper. They try so hard and are so perfectly loving. And yet, of course, they hover. How could they not? Gus has already lost his first girlfriend to a brain tumor. Hazel feels for much of the novel like a human hand grenade in the lives of her parents and Gus. Her challenge (one of so many) is to get beyond this.)
To write about cancer in young people in this way takes a level of wisdom, a perspective, pure love, that most readers will only be able to imagine. Everything else seems like sentiment. Toward the end, Gus asks Hazel to recite a poem, any poem, and she chooses William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the tone of which perfectly fits this novel:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
“And so much depends,” Hazel tells Gus as they wait for an ambulance in a pre-dawn parking lot, “upon a blue sky cut open by the branches of the trees above. So much depends upon the transparent G-tube erupting from the gut of the blue-lipped boy. So much depends upon this observer of the universe”:
Half-conscious, he glanced over at me and mumbled, “And you say you don’t write poetry.”