Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars

I almost didn't finish this book. I read to page 106 and had to put it down.

Not because it was poorly written. Oh, no. John Green is a brilliant author.

It was  getting to be too...much for me. Now, if you've followed the huge press on The Fault in Our Stars (it entered the New York Times Bestseller List at #4 and will be #1 in this week's list), you know that it's a story about two teenagers with cancer who meet at a cancer support group. So, you figure that it's going to be fairly intense.

Oh, it's intense. It's also a frightfully accurate, moving, hilarious, and heartbreaking portrayal of young people living with a life-threatening disease.

I almost didn't finish it because I started thinking back to my summers working at Children's Hospital in New Orleans. When I was in high school (and the summer before I started college), I volunteered several times a week at Children's. I loved it and seriously considered going into a hospital-based therapy profession, but I decided to take a different direction.

I didn't work with children with cancer--they were on another floor-but I spent a great deal of time with children battling cystic fibrosis. And since even children who can manage their CF relatively normally (as normally as you can manage CF in an area--Louisiana and the immediate Gulf South- difficult for children with severe respiratory diseases) generally go in at least once a year or so for a "tune up" even when they aren't admitted because of a sudden attack, I got to know some of these children and families quite well.  And, as most people know, CF is an ultimately fatal disease that, although the average lifespan has increased, generally takes its warriors in their 20s or 30s. Which is the age range those 4,8,10,13 year old kids would be right now or nearing. Reading about young people facing their mortality jarred my memory of these kids and shook me up. I can be a pretty cool customer when it comes to very emotional and intense books, but this was the first time I really, really had to step away for a bit.

Hazel knows the cards she's been dealt. Her cancer is at bay now, but it will eventually come back. There's no talk of a cure, just management. She's earned her GED, though, and attends community college part-time when she can. Her parents are concerned about her mental state, so they make her attend a cancer support group for young people. It's pretty silly and meaningless to her until she meets Gus, who is in remission for osteosarcoma (which literally cost him a leg).  They bond over their shared experiences, their love of quips and dark humor, and books, quickly forming a deep relationship.  Although Hazel has already used up her wish granted by a Make a Wish-like foundation (which is revealed in a hilarious scene), Gus is still owed one, resulting in a life-changing trip to Amsterdam.

Lest you think this is nothing but sadness (and there is a great deal of that), this also contains many scenes and quips that will literally have you laughing out loud. Hazel and Gus have the wise-beyond-their-years mentality and dark humor that is not uncommon among young people who have spent a great deal of time in hospitals, which may unnerve readers unused to that.  Green's personal experience with teens battling life-threatening illnesses is clearly evident, whether he's writing about the support group mentality, the conflict between scared and heartbroken parents and their seriously ill children, the awkwardness between the teens with cancer and their friends that they had before cancer, and the trauma of saying goodbye to a wildly loved person.

This is definitely a book for mature readers, not just for the language and (brief) sexuality; this is a beautifully written and expressed novel about illness and death that will definitely make its impact on the reader. It is so worth it, though.  John Green worked on this novel for 10 years; it is truly a marvelous achievement in his career.

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