“But it’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy. But in [An Imperial Affliction], Anna decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera.”
-John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
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The above quote occurs early in the fourth chapter of the young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars and is a good indication of how the rest of the book will go. The narrator is Hazel, a teenaged girl who has had cancer for three years. She carries an oxygen tank everywhere she goes, she attends a Support Group that seems highly unhelpful, she loves her parents, she reads poetry from Eliot and Ginsberg, and she meets (early in the novel, at the previously mentioned unhelpful Support Group) a cancer survivor named Augustus Waters, with whom she eventually falls in love.
This, too, is not your typical cancer book. Throw every comparison to A Walk to Remember or Lurlene McDaniel out of the window. Instead, think of the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. In fact, John Green sends Hazel and Augustus to Amsterdam, where they have an incredible moment in the Anne Frank Museum, and I was reminded of why I loved and lamented Frank’s diary so much: I knew how the book was going to end. I got to know the characters, but I, the reader, understood that I could not be with the characters for long, even within the pages of the novel.
The beautiful thing about this book is that you know tragedy will occur. Hazel is very grounded, very accepting of the fact that she has a terminal cancer. She knows there is no cure; she knows the drugs she’s taking are only prolonging her life, not ending the cancer. She can, however, still lament the brevity of life. She can seeks to understand life in the short time she has.
Cancer is not portrayed as romantic, as in other novels. It is heartbreaking and devastating in so many ways. Hazel and Gus, and I and everyone else who’s read this, understand that.
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In spite of the sadness, this book is funny and alive. The dialogue is fabulous–Hazel and Gus are quirky and intelligent, and their conversations often reminded me of conversations I’ve had with my best friend.
Green is also great at metafiction–reminding the reader that this is a novel, not reality. In the book, Hazel’s favorite novel is An Imperial Affliction, which Gus also reads. This novel drives a lot of the plot of the story as Gus chooses to use a “Wish” from a nonprofit organization to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet the author of the novel. Hazel, in all her rereadings of the book, has hoped to discern what happens to the character after the book’s abrupt end. When she finally meets the author–who is a total jerk (to be nice)–he explains:
“But to be perfectly frank, this childish idea that the author of a novel has some special insight into the characters in the novel…it’s ridiculous. That novel was composed of scratches on a page, dear. The characters inhabiting it have no life outside of those scratches. What happened to them? They all ceased to exist the moment the novel ended.”
This tirade, combined with Green’s author’s note that the novel is a work of fiction, serve as a reminder of the power of a story: we can care so much about characters, be driven to powerful emotion, travel around the world just to discover more of the story.
This reminder made it easier on me to finish the book. I don’t remember the last time I cried so much while reading a book. And while I lamented losing characters who had become dear to me, I also remembered that their stories actually did end when I turned the last page, and I remembered that my life continues beyond the close of the book. And while I continue to live, I remember what I’ve learned from stories: that life and love matter, even when they’re oh-so-difficult.