This is a moving story of star-crossed lovers in a time of cancer told by 16-year-old Hazel. Hazel has stage-four thyroid cancer with a “satellite colony” in her lungs. As she tells it, “depression is a side effect of cancer” and, at the behest of her parents, she attends a support group at the local Episcopal Church. There, she meets Augustus, another “cancer kid” in remission from a rare bone cancer. The two hit it off, which launches the love story. They are bright, witty, and physically attractive despite the accoutrements of cancer: Hazel, an oxygen canister and cannula; Augustus, a prosthetic leg. In addition to dealing with regular teenage angst (appearance, fitting in, parents, etc.), they grapple with existential themes of life, death, suffering, and meaning. They not only handle their own suffering, but also the suffering they will inevitably inflict on their parents and each other – Hazel sees herself as a grenade that will eventually detonate, taking down the loved ones in her path. This results in her distance; Augustus, however, tells her that “all efforts to save me from you will fail.”
Augustus comes into her life and shows Hazel that she is more than her disease: “Like, cancer is in the growth business, right? The taking-people-over business. But surely you haven’t let it succeed prematurely.” Together they begin a magical, romantic adventure culminating in a trip to Amsterdam to meet with the author of Hazel’s favorite book.
I admire the quote from Hazel: “There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities… There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set.” The lesson, of course, is no matter what size the unbounded set, it’s what we do with the infinity in between that counts. Or, as many a motivational speaker states: it’s what you do with the dash – the dash between your date of birth and date of death on your tombstone. Hazel thanks Gus for the “forever within the numbered days.”
Augustus, struggling with meaning, is despondent about not leaving a bigger mark with his life. Comparing his situation to dying in battle, for a cause, or on a cross: “There is no glory in illness. There is no meaning to it. There is no honor in dying of.” He eventually learns by example from Hazel that “the real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention.” Hazel says, “I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed.” And it’s noticing that increases life and time, not the number of hours.
Particularly young adults should read this book, because Hazel and Augustus are good role models. When Hazel’s mom asks, “Is it still cool to go to the mall?” Hazel replies, “I take a lot of pride in not knowing what’s cool.” – which makes her cool. They are teenage heroes above all the anxiety-ridden stuff normal teenagers deal with. Instead, they have to confront big, real life issues like death and cancer, which puts the concern of looking fat in your jeans in proper perspective. But, this is also a great book for adults, because it is well written, humorous, intelligent, and ultimately a story of life and love and the art of noticing.
The Fault in Our Stars is being released as a movie June 6 starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort.
Bryan and his 14-year-old twin daughters, Adrienne and Miriam, will be reviewing “The Fault in Our Stars” on WZZM Channel 13 Take Five morning show at 9:00am Monday, June 2. Please join us for the Book Nook Book Club at 6:00pm Monday, June 2 at the Book Nook & Java Shop in downtown Montague. Young adult readers are encouraged to attend.