In The Fault in Our Stars, John Green has created a soulful novel that tackles big subjects–life, death, love–with the perfect blend of levity and heart-swelling emotion. Hazel is sixteen, with terminal cancer, when she meets Augustus at her kids-with-cancer support group. The two are kindred spirits, sharing an irreverent sense of humor and immense charm, and watching them fall in love even as they face universal questions of the human condition–How will I be remembered? Does my life, and will my death, have meaning?–has a raw honesty that is deeply moving.
Hazel firmly believes that she’s “over” the fact that she will soon be dead. The diagnosis had come when she was just a kid, and after years of denial, fear, unsuccessful treatment, and tears she has come to grips that her body will soon stop functioning.
Her parents are convinced that she is only playing the hero; so in a compromising spirit Hazel agrees to attend a kids-with-cancer support group. She suspects it will be like every other session she’s had with her psychologist, where she’s be pepped into trying a little harder to will the treatment to work, to keep a good attitude and firm faith. And, indeed, it turns out to be just that. But this go around there’s something different.
On her first day at treatment, a boys around her age sidles into the next seat over, and when the Group Leader starts into her We’re All Here to Support Each Other speech, their gaze meet mid sarcastic eye-roll.
It’s true love.
Well, true YA in for the short-haul love.
Several chapters montage their playful banter, late nigh escapades through their cities, pranks in the hospital, and poetry reading in dusty bookshelves. Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, and Les Misérables are all crooned to each other before the hormones take over and passionate kissing makes it hard to form coherent sentences.
When they’re assigned by their support Group Leader to find a new hobby, they both take up stargazing, and spend many nights on the rooftop of the hospital (which just happens to be the tallest building in town) looking through a second-hand telescope. Every time they find pricks of life in the dark spaces, they breath out sighs of relief: there’s still hope in the heavens.
Occasionally, their not so unconscious focus on death breaks into the real world and they talk about things that feel inherently wrong for any teenaged to discuss: if they’ve written a will, how they’d like their funerals to play out (Hazel’s adamant about white verses black clothing) and the one thing they keep coming back too: who will remember them?
One afternoon Augustus shows her the journals he began keeping since the day he was diagnosed. His family doesn’t know that he writes every night, and he keeps them in a box with his baby brother’s name printed neatly across the top. Hazel admits that her record of poor grades come from her doubts that, even if she tried, she would never achieve anything worth remembering so instead she tries to enjoy for herself the little time she has left.
Slowly, Augustus begins to coach her into writing and soon much of their stargazing time turns to writing; scribbling out their thoughts, ideas, and memories as they pretend not to notice as each other’s physical condition dilapidates further. Hazel finds out that, while she’s only a mediocre writer she has a talent for spelling and grammar, which she frequently uses to help Augustus sort through his more hazy ideas.
It surprises Hazel, but not the readers that Augustus dies first. At the funeral she’s surprised when his mother hands her the star covered notebook he’d been spending most of his time with. This one isn’t a journal, it’s a collection of essays. She reads his beliefs about the afterlife, about appreciating beauty, about herself, and about how to live life knowing that it will end much sooner than those around you.
It surprises Hazel more that she doesn’t cry as she reads. Instead, she’s filled with the resolve to use her remaining lifespan to finish, clean, and publish this evidence of life-and perhaps in doing so add in a few thoughts of her own to endure when her own life ends.