I didn’t think I’d ever want to review a thing, but I reviewed a Mad Men episode and it didn’t kill me (smile.) So, when I stay up late to read and then steal moments the next day to finish a book, I know I’m rather captured by it. The book is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Soon, it’ll be a major motion picture by 20th Century Fox. The trailer is here.
The set up is utterly non-charming. Two ordinary mid-Western kids with cancer meet at a teenager-focused cancer support group.
The story, though, is utterly charming, as you’d expect it to be since it starts at a rather low point. Because, naturally, the kids are not ordinary at all and are funnier, smarter, and infinitely wiser than normal healthy teens. Maybe because they have cancer? Or maybe because they just are funnier, smarter and infinitely wiser human beings and as we all know – only the funnier, smarter and infinitely wiser die young. So tragedy mixed with some comedy leads to these amazing children named Hazel Grace Lancaster, 16, and Augustus Waters, 17.
Let me start with – I couldn’t help but love this book and be moved by it (I laughed, I cried). But still I have two big quibbles. The first is the cancer narrative which Fault seeks to deconstruct. (Wow. Fancy words there.) I mean, they do make fun of the “bravely fighting cancer patient who becomes all wise and patient to their last dying breath” meme, but at the same time, highlight it completely in their main characters.
The fact is – and if we really think hard about this, we know this – there are some truths to sickness and dying that hold, call them the “Noble Truths of Sickness and Dying.” One is – we’re all dying as we live. Every day is one day closer to our death and there is no way around it. Two – any one of us can have a disease in our body right now at this very instant. It may not have risen to the point of being diagnosed, but we’re all vulnerable to this process because we are human. It takes time before cancer is diagnosed – the cells have to get to that critical mass. So even in the midst of our healthiest, we could have a cancer that could make us sick or kill us and just not know it. That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? At least it is to me.
Three is – we die as we lived. We don’t automatically get braver, more patient or wiser (funnier, more compassionate, smarter) because we’re sick or dying. If we’re petty before we’re dying of cancer, we’re probably still counting the grudges when we’re on our deathbed, even if we were hoping that cancer would erase our less than attractive personality characteristics. And four – we’re alive until we’re dead. Death is both a process and an event. But until we are actually completely dead as in no brain activity or beating heart dead, we’re alive in some way, shape or form. The process of death has a somewhat predictable course (I say somewhat because everybody is different and not all deaths occur the same way), and in that process, you can and often do lose consciousness towards the very end. Even with loss of consciousness, though, until the body is dead, you are still here At least in some way, shape or form.
These truths are real and I discovered them working in hospice with patients and families. The truths offer a way to think about our own deaths that is both sobering, perhaps a bit scary (what? I could be sick and not know it – oh my god!), but ultimately comforting, too. And yes, they are a wake-up call to live our lives right now. Don’t hesitate to do the things you really, truly want to do. There’s no point in that.
So what do these truths have to do with the book, soon-to-be movie? Just that amazing teenagers, although of course they exist, aren’t necessarily just so due to cancer.
I know it’s hard to write about the other kind of normal, annoying teenager who gets cancer. And probably nobody would want to read about that kid. There is one character in this book who fits this fairly closely, but she’s dying of brain cancer, so her nastiness is attributed to this, not to just being a jerky teenager with cancer. We never find out (she’s a minor, although important, character) if she was a jerk prior to getting brain cancer. I like to think that this was the case, but who knows?
So, everything is heightened in a story about two “cancer kids” falling in love – they have a big adventure in a foreign country as one of their cancer “perks” (Augustus’ wish that he hadn’t taken advantage of yet). They drink amazing champagne and eat a romantic dinner before making love for their first, and perhaps only, time. No backseat fumblings for our protagonists.
And that brings me to my other quibble about this book.
No adult can really write teenagers all that well. But the problem with teenagers writing a book like this – most of them aren’t good enough writers yet and they’d bungle writing the parents and other adults. Perhaps it’s better to be left with the polished adult author writing a first-person narrative of a 16-year-old girl with terminal cancer. She’s a very sophisticated thinker, our Hazel Grace. Almost preternaturally so. Almost as an afterthought, the author gives Hazel a girlfriend who is a more normal teenaged girl. And in some ways, Kaitlyn, the friend, would have been more interesting to me as a cancer kid, but see, she would be too oriented to what she was wearing and who she was dumping this week (in other words – too shallow), to be interesting to the author. She’d be the annoying cancer kid and that wouldn’t do.
So we get an author who has fallen in love with his main characters, and they are wittier, smarter, able to use metaphors accurately, more romantic and charming, than any teenager you know or are ever going to know.
And that’s fine. It makes for better reading and a lot of great quotes, too. I suspect the filmmakers had a breeze writing the script because the book offers up lots of great scenes and snappy dialogue – sort of like Tracy and Hepburn but in teenagers with cancer!
What I think is this – we all die with our to-do lists undone, and the laundry not yet folded, and our journals left off in mid-sentence. I have a friend (who was also my hair stylist) who died of a heart attack about a week and half ago. Right after dinner. I hope he enjoyed his last meal, although he couldn’t know it would be that, of course. And I’m not being snarky or cutesy when I say this, I’m being sincere. He loved good food and was a gourmet chef, so I hope he had a great meal that Sunday night. He’d probably be highly disappointed if it was just a bowl of cereal, right? Like, that was it?
But plenty of people do die with “that was it?” and we can’t live our lives with high drama (or great meals and amazing champagne) all of the time. A lot of life is ordinary, and a lot of death is, too.
Cancer, for all it’s horribleness, is a gift. It gives the bearer of it usually some time, although never enough. In that time, you can throw in some drama, some novelty and perhaps, if you’re lucky, some romance. That’s the best thing about The Fault in Our Stars – the characters know they are time limited and so they pull out the stops, and they live and love, even knowing they are “grenades” about to go off.
It should never take cancer to teach a person to live in the midst of death. But then again, we are always living in the midst of death.
We are all grenades about to go off.