Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Augustus drives worse than the Taiwan taxi drivers who pump the gas pedal like a pipe organ and speed through switchback-type alleys that leave my husband and me so carsick I have resorted to stashing airline puke bags in my purse. Hazel Grace Lancaster also gets tossed to and fro while driving around town with Augustus who has no feeling in his prosthetic leg, "I flew against the seat belt of his Toyota SUV each time he braked, and my necked snapped backward each time he hit the gas." Augustus explains he failed taking his driver's test three times at which Hazel replies, "You don't say." Hazel's sarcastic humor and wit, along with a great supporting cast of characters, make this love story surprisingly funny given that Hazel  has terminal cancer.

Hazel's thyroid cancer from three years ago has spread to her lungs and is slowly killing her. She carries around an oxygen tank that she calls, Philip, and describes her support group with a mixture of humor, disgust, crudeness, and philosophy in this great teenagy run-on sentence: "So here's how it went in God's heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable like story - how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn't die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master's degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life. AND YOU TOO MIGHT BE SO LUCKY!"  One of many clever references, the sword of Damocles is in a Greek tale about a powerful leader who is in constant fear; thus showing the constant fear Patrick and others at the group meeting face daily whether they are cancer-free or not. Hazel implies that cancer is like having a sword over your head that is being held in place by a horse's hair.

When Hazel meets Augustus at the support group, a former basketball player who has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, he lends her his favorite sci-fi book, “The Price of Dawn,” a novelization of his favorite video game. She, in turn, lends him her best-loved book, “An Imperial Affliction” by Peter Van Houten, about a young girl with cancer. Van Houten ends his novel  in the middle of a sentence and Hazel is obsessed with finding out what happens to the characters, writing to the author over ten years, begging him - to no avail - for answers. After reading “An Imperial Affliction,” Augustus decides to use his “wish” from “The Genie Foundation,” a charity that grants requests of very ill children, to send himself and Hazel to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten in a life-changing trip.

I thought the weaving of references to existentialism was not only intriguing but added depth, irony, and emotion to the story. In a nutshell, existentialism is a philosophy that claims a person defines himself or herself through conscious decisions in a hostile or indifferent environment versus a person being defined by arbitrary or preconceived stereotypes. Or more simply, it is a conscious decision to give value or meaning to life. In this story, cancer, and the good and bad reaction of people without cancer, is the hostile environment and those who have cancer must consciously define how they want to live and approach each day. Let's face it, most young readers are not going to know about existentialism and while Augustus' phrase "existentially fraught free throws" might go over the head of many, readers will get the gist that his existential moment happened one day when he was questioning the meaningfulness of playing basketball. It also happened to be the last day of his "dual leggedness."

One of Hazel's burning questions is the fate of the hamster, Sisyphus. In Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned to the meaningless labor of repeatedly pushing a boulder up a mountain and watching it roll down. Like a hamster on a wheel that goes nowhere, or Sisyphus repeating the same task over and over, Hazel's effort to fight cancer is repetitive and meaningless. Sisyphus is also referred to by the famous existential writer, Albert Camus in his novel, The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus introduces absurdism, a branch of existentialism, that asserts people live in a meaningless, chaotic world. Cancer is absurd and there is no rhyme or reason as to who it strikes or why some survive and others don't.

The video game played by Hazel, Augustus, and Isaac emphasize abundant meaningless kills of virtual characters and how Augustus always sacrifices himself to save another in the game (versus killing and winning the game). Not only does this fit with existentialism and Augustus trying to shape meaning into his life, but is symbolic of cancer killing him and his sacrifice of his "wish" to save Hazel and help her give meaning to her cancer-riddled life by talking to Van Houten. Hazel also wants her parents to have meaning in their life which revolves around her cancer as well. The portrayal of the loving, supportive parents trying to deal with a daughter who is dying is poignant, but not overly melodramatic. Hazel is still scolded when she shows a bratty attitude or gets annoyed at a "hovering" mother. 

This novel has so many references, themes, and metaphors I need to cut myself off - this review is starting to sound like an English paper - but bear with me on another theme. Hazel and Augustus go to Amsterdam and tour the Anne Frank house. The parallels of the injustice and randomness of death occurring to Anne Frank is similar to how cancer strikes. Anne Frank didn't deserve to live in an attic and die, nor does Hazel or any of the other support group member with cancer. It appears meaningless and harsh, but the characters decide to make each day count in spite of the chaos of this disease. They take risks by becoming friends, falling in love, or getting answers from an author who wrote a compelling book. In the process they grow and change and they are so likable we can't help but root for them all the way.

The writing is rich, characters strong, and the topic surrounding cancer emotionally-charged and full of tension. I did guess a major plot point in the first chapter, but that's mainly because the story follows the classic romance formula of girl meets boy; girl and boy fall in love; some obstacle gets in the way of their love; girl and boy get back together. Well-written romances do this so it isn't a bad thing. And even though it scooped a little of the surprise for me, there are other excellent plot twists, along with the oodles of references and metaphors that kept me engaged in the story. The swearing and sex scene (not graphic) make this a middle school book. Enjoy.

Young Adult
4 out of 5 Smileys

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