I’d avoided this book as being too sad, until S.M. put it on my desk and told me I had to listen to it. I did. It was worth it.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Read by Kate Rudd
Before you read this book, make sure you have a good supply of hankies. You’ll need them for more than one reason – in the first part of the book, because Hazel, our narrator, is just so darn funny. She’s 16, and her death by what’s now mostly lung cancer has been delayed for a few years due to an experimental miracle drug. Mostly she deals with her impending mortality by watching bad TV with her parents and re-reading her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter van Houten. Hazel’s mother is convinced that she needs to get out and meet other kids. She takes Hazel to a “kids with cancer” support group that meets in a church basement, which the leader describes as “the literal heart of Jesus.” It’s usually a depressing experience, but one day, her friend Isaac-with-eye-cancer brings his friend, handsome Augustus Waters. Augustus is missing a leg due to his cancer, which is now in remission.
The basic plot is simple: two teens with cancer fall in love. But if it were either just a sob story or an Uplifting Tale, it wouldn’t be nearly so successful. Though Hazel converts Augustus to her love of An Imperial Affliction, there’s a lot of looking at the different ways that they deal with the knowledge that death is coming. Hazel cries foul on Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, saying that the idea that you only have energy to pay attention to self-actualization and beauty if your basic needs, such as health, are met, is false and insulting, making ill people seem less human than healthy people. (I found this particularly interesting as a person whose basic need for sleep has not been met for several years now – yet look, I go on reading and writing about it. Even as I place my need for more sleep above my child’s desire to do more activities.) It’s an intimate look at the pediatric cancer world, the kids who live there, and the humor and love it takes to bear the unbearable. Kate Rudd does an amazing job reading. It won this year’s Odyssey award (and was the only one among this year’s finalists I’d listened too.) The book feels like watching bubbles or the slanting golden sunshine on an autumn day.
The Fault in our Stars hit especially close to home for me. I haven’t lived in the pediatric cancer world, or even the adult cancer world (knock on wood.) But I have spent quite a bit of time at this point in the pediatric liver transplant world. This world of medicines and tubes, taking things one step at a time, overhearing the 6 am calls in the hallways from parents with horrible news that came in the night, and the sick kid perks. At my daughter’s hospital, I had to start asking them not to give us the free handmade blanket with every admission, because we had more than we could use at home already. The book cart came by with a free book (at least one for each patient and any siblings) every week; there were toys and games and gift baskets. Even though the book is written from Hazel’s perspective, I felt deep empathy with Hazel’s parents. And if Green hadn’t have managed that perfect balance of that wry humor and the serious subject, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
Other John Green books I’ve read (just a few of the many):
Looking for Alaska (before I started reviewing, it looks like. But it was still good.)
An Abundance of Katherines