I wouldn’t have heard of this book if my son Chris weren’t such a fan of author John Green, of Vlogbrothers and Nerdfighters fame. One evening he convinced me to listen to a video of John Green reading the first chapter aloud, and I was completely hooked. The main character is a sixteen-year-old girl with cancer, Hazel, who is fiercely intelligent and ruthlessly unsentimental. Her voice drew me in from page one, and once I got the book for Chris and he’d finished reading it, I devoured it myself in two days.
If I tell you this is a young adult novel about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love, or that I cried in Starbucks while reading the last few chapters, it will sound sappy. But the beauty of this book is how un-sappy it is, how funny and smart and insightful when dealing with material that could be as slushy and sentimental as the embroidered “encouragements” that the parents of Hazel’s friend Augustus have posted all over their home. (“Without Pain, We Would Never Know What Joy Is,” etc.). It’s also one of those young-adult books that an adult can read and love without needing to make any disclaimers or apologies (“Oh, it’s very good for a teen novel,” etc). Good books should just be good books, period, and this one is.
This book left a huge impact on me for a lot of reasons, and as is so often the case, those reasons had as much to do with where I was in my life when reading it, as with the book itself. I didn’t plan it this way, but I read it on the weekend that was one year to the date after my last visit with my friend Jamie, and of course I was thinking about Jamie a lot as I read it, especially in the parts of the book that describe hanging out with someone who is in the last stages of terminal cancer. I found those passages very true to what I’d experienced a year ago, and I’m sure when I cried in Starbucks I was crying as much about Jamie as I was about — well, whoever dies in the book, which I’m certainly not going to tell you.
It also felt intense to me because it was the first time I’d shared reading a book with my son that was about such intense stuff — there’s death and sex and falling in love and questions about God and the afterlife, and it kind of brought me up short, to realize I now have kids old enough to need and appreciate these kinds of stories. I found myself wondering if this is going to be one of those books that stays with Chris and shapes the way he sees the world, as some of the books I read at that age did for me.
So all in all, reading this book was an intense experience for lots of my own personal reasons, but if the book hadn’t been so intelligent and well-written and the characters so completely believable and gripping, none of that stuff would have gotten unlocked for me. And that is just what books are for, so thank you, John Green.
My streak of reading really incredible books this year, begun with Heft and continued with A Grownup Kind of Pretty, has continued with The Fault in Our Stars, and I’m loving every minute of it. Even the minutes I spend crying in Starbucks. After all, I’m never going to see that guy who was sitting in the chair across from me again, so why should I care what he thinks?