Teen-agers believe they are immortal. We’ve all heard that bromide and there’s a lot of truth in it. But, what goes through the minds of teen-agers afflicted by a terminal disease? How do they view the world differently than other teens? How do they approach life when their days are numbered? When they know they will never experience many of life’s milestones: a job, a career, marriage, children, grand children, professional and personal achievements? How will they be remembered (She fought a courageous battle)? More importantly how do they want to be remembered?
John Green explores these questions and more in his heart-wrenching, incisive and at times witty novel, The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel Grace Lancaster suffers from thyroid cancer. She almost died when she was 13, but miraculously survived and now the cancer has settled in her lungs. Hazel is taking an experimental drug which is prolonging her life. She breathes with the help of oxygen tanks. At one point she corrects her mother, who uses the phrase “if you die.” Hazel responds by telling mom “when,” not if.
The story opens with 16-year-old Hazel in the depths of depression. Her mom prods her to attend a youth cancer support group that meets in the basement of a local church. There she meets Augustus Waters, a “hot” former basketball player whose leg was amputated below the knee to stave off, as he put it, “a touch of osteosarcoma.” Augustus is cancer-free. He is also completely in love with Hazel.
Hazel loves Augustus, too, but fights her feelings, knowing she will die soon. She doesn’t want to be a “grenade” exploding on Augustus, scarring him for life. Hazel is a realist and an acerbic critic of the culture of cancer support groups, while she fully understands how difficult and heartbreaking it is to be a parent of a cancer victim. She continually uses the phrase “cancer perks,” the Make-A-Wish trips and the people who provide them, who she refers to as “the Genies.”
Equally clear-eyed, Augustus reminds Hazel that the world is not a wish-granting factory. Nonetheless, Augustus uses his wish to take Hazel, accompanied by her mom, to Amsterdam to meet an author, Peter Van Houten, whose novel, An Imperial Affliction, about a young girl dying from cancer, has deeply affected Hazel. The novel ends in mid-sentence, leaving Hazel to speculate that the girl died or was too sick to continue writing. Hazel has written several letters asking the author how the story ends, but he hasn’t answered any of them. Augustus managed to reach the author’s assistant, who has promised to answer Hazel’s questions in person if she travels to Amsterdam.
I won’t spoil the story by revealing much more than that. Although the meeting with Van Houten is a disaster, in a strange way, Hazel finds answers in Amsterdam, though not the ones she was seeking. As for Augustus, his biggest fear is oblivion, the notion he will die without making an impact on the universe. What I believe Green’s touching and heartbreaking story tells us is that our legacy is not what we leave behind for the universe to remember us by, but the impact we have on the people who matter most to us.