I bet that reading The Fault in our Stars by John Green felt different before it landed in the collective stranglehold of a nation. I bet it packed more uff before there was a movie and the trailers showed a cute girl with tubes in her nose, omnipresent oxygen tank. I bet it felt like getting kicked in the gut in slow motion, again and again and again, to read this thing when the pages still smelled like wet ink.
But when you know the gist — Teenagers with Cancer Fall in Love — it really just softens the blows from those gut kicks. Instead of instigating a cry fest, there is a heavy awareness that This is Supposed to Make You Cry. And if it doesn’t, this will. And if that doesn’t work, check this: The final quarter of the book is a quick-bag finale that never ever stops trying to make the reader choke on her own throat gobs.
Hazel almost died when she was 13, but she didn’t. Now she’s a couple years older and occasionally attending a support group, to shake her mom’s concerns that she’s depressed, led by a guy who’s constantly telling the story of his nut cancer. She’s got a support group friend, Isaac, who is about to lose his second eye, and his girlfriend, to cancer surgery. When Isaac brings his buddy Gus to group, Gus goes gaga for Hazel. She reminds him of an early 2000s Natalie Portman.
She resists his affection. His last girlfriend, also a cancer case, died. Scrolling the girl’s Facebook page reminds Hazel that she’s going to die, too, and she doesn’t want Gus to go through this again. But Gus, a super earnest former jock whose cancer took one of his legs, is relentless. So first there is friendship, great scenes of bonding told in witty, world-wise banter, and then the friendship grows until they’re both tonsil deep in the house where Anne Frank hid.
So this is young love — never easy — through the filter of cancer — extra never easy. The story is well-done, though a plot move that finds the kids hunting down a reclusive favorite author shows seams. The characters are smart and wise and edgy, strong and likable. Among the better couples of modern lit.
But if you know … if you picked up this book post-hype … it’s gut punches are tolerable. It’s an uncomfortable tickle when Deathbed Hazel overhears her mother tell her father how after this she won’t be a mother anymore. But it’s a little predictable, for the world-weary saps who’ve read the gamut of super sad true love stories. (Though, I suppose this is YA so I should stop tramping on the kids’ emotional outlets. Maybe this is their Ol’ Yeller or Bridge to Terabithia.)