Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
At the three-quarter mark
I’m in a McDonald’s outside Sydney Airport with the book on my lap. I’ve read 237 pages – all on the train between Civic and Central – which is 74.76 per cent of the way through. At this part of the book male protagonist Gus has just come home after a major cancer complication landed in him hospital, and Gus’s parents are making our heroine Hazel watch old family videos with them. Gus has just said “Nah, nostalgia is a side effect of dying. It is a good life, Hazel Rose.”
This kind of sentence is both what engrosses me in the book and what turns me off it a bit. But more on that shortly.
The Fault in our Stars is a current Teen Sensation. I know this because whenever I walk into a bookshop lately every single other teen lit novel is being marketed referentially, as in “Love The Fault in our Stars? Why not try This Similar Young Adult Novel That May Or May Not Be About Cancer!” For yes, this is both a Young Adult novel and a book about cancer, so it is some kind of freak event that I ended up reading it. I have generally made it a habit to stay away from both genres since I left school, and both for the same reason: that the ones worth reading tend to be horribly well-written as well as uncomfortably moving and profound.
My first impressions of the book were very, very dubious. My copy is the $12 paperback version from Big W that has the film-tie-in cover, which is a gag-inducing Hollywoodesque cliché photograph of two Teenagers In Love with healthy, healthy skin and strategically tousled hair. Ugh. I persevered. The title page has a quote from something called An Imperial Affliction that includes the line ‘Conjoiner rejoinder poisoner concealer revelator.’ Good grief. What is this pretentious nonsense? I persevered further. The next page has the author’s preface. He makes a grammatical mistake: ‘Neither novels or their readers’, not ‘Neither novels NOR their readers.’ By now I am wondering if this author is some kind of mental case and this book a lost cause.
Then I read the first paragraph, and even though it says nothing particularly interesting and uses no particularly interesting words, I somehow knew it was a teenage girl talking, and that I liked her. How do authors manage to do that? Go read the first paragraph and try to pinpoint what gives away so suddenly that it’s a girl. I guess it’s something to do with the use of the word ‘mother’. A male narrator probably wouldn’t reference his mum in the first paragraph of his memoir, I suppose.
Anyway, I really liked the story, and the way she dives right in with a super cynical appraisal of the Christian cancer support group she’s forced to attend and its leader Patrick, from whom “cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.” Gus seemed super creepy at first but won me over pretty fast, and my first laugh-out-loud moment was this: “We gotta do something about this frigging swing set. I’m telling you, it’s ninety percent of the problem.” I like the fact that gender stereotypes are subverted with the parents and it’s the mum who’s all technically versed up and the dad who keeps dissolving into fits of sobs. Not to mention that the mum says stuff like, “Hazel has developed an issue with the ghettoization of scrambled eggs.”
The easy witty charm of Hazel and Gus is the best feature of the book, but it just seems that they, like their families in general, are almost TOO good at communicating with each other. There’s a scene where Hazel has just read Gus’s dead ex-girlfriend’s Facebook wall and it upsets her. Oh no – emotional turbulence ahead! Wait no there isn’t! Hazel is so self-aware and emotionally well-developed that It takes her about five minutes to realise that her emotional reactions have been driven by fear she’ll hurt those around her. Then she goes to dinner and it takes LITERALLY TWO LINES OF DIALOGUE for her to go from “Shut up Mum I’m stroppy” to “OK I guess my teenagery outburst is the result of my concern for the wellbeing of those around me regarding the metaphor of myself as a grenade.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love this way of portraying teenagers and parents as able to be able to talk to each other like smart funny self-aware humans. It was great in the movie Easy A which feels like a similar set of characters in a different, cancer-free story. But it makes me wonder, at this three-quarter mark, whether this is a book for real teenagers with cancer (or any other people going through any other real struggle), where it’s more likely you’re surrounded by nutless Patricks than hip Guses, and emotions and obstacles are much more murky – or whether it’s a book for readers seeking escapism, where a story about kids struggling with cancer is just a way for us to feel like the world is a beautiful place?
I don’t know, and I haven’t even finished the book. If Gus dies horrifically and Hazel starts having bleak thoughts and the book ends on a downer, unresolved, then I stand corrected.
At the finish
[Watch out. Spoilers.]
Update: I have now finished the book. I take it back. There was just the right amount of bleakness. Quote: “I kept thinking there were two kinds of adults: There were Peter van Houtens – miserable creatures who scoured the earth in search of something to hurt. And then there were people like my parents, who walked around zombically, doing whatever they had to do to keep walking around.”
As a matter of fact, there was just the right amount of everything. Profundity, confusion, inexperience, wisdom, humour, sadness, lightness and bleakness. It was a good book.
I’m super glad the parents stayed together, the Mum enrolled in a course, Gus wrote that thing, the Dutch assistant lady went and got a boyfriend, etc. Books like this are a nice reminder that it’s possible to live well.
But that frigging swing set definitely had to go.
This book was mostly read on a train and a plane.
Featured image extracted from this great source.