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.
Get ready for John Green’s latest book, a novel that has at its center two young cancer patients, but is not a “cancer book” because, as Hazel, the main character, explains “cancer books suck.” This one is very, very far away from the suck spectrum.
When Hazel meets Augustus Waters at a cancer support group, she still has a diagnosis of thyroid terminal cancer and has to wheel an oxygen tank wherever she goes. Augustus is an amputee whose osteosarcoma is in remission, and who fixates on the get-go on our narrator. In return, I’d like to fixate a bit on him.
You see, several early chapter of this novel portray the teenage boy as the Manic Pixie Dream Boy extraordinaire in the YA genre. Granted, the concept is more cinematic than literary, and it almost always applies to the females of the species instead of the men, but there was something about Augustus that reminded me of Nathan Rabin’s definition, “”that bubbly, shallow […] creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” At first, that’s what Augustus seems to be bringing to Hazel’s cynical-because-she-is-perpetually-dying-table. He is the rare high school guy who flirts by making a perfect swoon worthy statement, like telling Hazel that she is a “Pixie-haired gorgeous girl [who] dislikes authority and can’t help but fall for a boy she knows is trouble.” He reads her favorite novel at her insistence, and then uses his Make-A-Wish like foundation desire to look for its elusive author. On their first date, he takes Hazel to a park behind a museum that is riddled with sculptures made of bones. He uses hamartia appropriately in conversation.
I have yet to meet any jock from Indiana to be that whimsical at any age, let alone at sixteen.
Of course, this being John Green, you can rest assured that his characterization of Hazel’s love interest doesn’t stay at that. As their relationship evolves and deepens, Augustus transforms into Gus, and as such his prepared persona, which he so carefully cultivated to woo Hazel, dissolves into something less dignified but a lot more real. This is perhaps not the most genius aspect of The Fault in Our Stars but, it was for me, one of the most gratifying. Because, after all, who didn’t fall in love with a concept when we were first testing the waters of this crazy little thing called love? My teenage years were filled with many crushes who, in my mind, were molded into whatever trope I happened to find attractive at the time. Guy mentioned a book? He was a bohemian literary geek who will write me sonnets in candlelight! (Never mind that he didn’t like the book he mentioned. And he only read it because it was for school. And the electricity in his apartment works fine.) Dude mentions a rugby practice he doesn’t want to go to? He is an athletic genius with a heart of gold who is being pushed into sports because of Society! (Or he might be feeling particularly lazy that day. Because he’s a sixteen year old boy who’d much rather be playing video games on the couch.)
We’ve all been there, and don’t you dare deny it! The difference between us and Hazel, though, other than the pesky distinction between reality and fiction, is that we had the gift of time on our side. In Hazel’s case, the transformation of a boy concept you love to a boy you love beyond a concept is speeded up. When Gus is forced to unveil his true core because of his physical limits, the relationship that emerges between the two deepens. After all is said and done, she comes to the realization that “He wasn’t your fairy-tale Prince Charming or whatever. He tried to be like that sometimes, but I liked him best when that stuff fell away.”
This book is about cancer, and especially about the limitations that carrying such a disease can have on a young life. But isn’t life itself about dealing with limitations anyway? We are all somehow constrained by our own physical reality, and the flaws we so eagerly try to hide, in one way or another. What The Fault in Our Stars does is highlight that this is what makes us human, instead of an idea of a person. Even better, it demonstrates that these limits don’t necessarily deny us the ability to love and be loved.