It took me a long time to get round to reading this book, despite many good reviews. I think that I was nervous about the tone of the story. I knew from all the hype that it was a love story about teenagers with cancer and guessed that the cancer aspect may dominate. I suppose I was put off by other ‘triumph over tragedy’ stories that are so popular for some reason and didn’t want to be sucked into a prurient fascination. But when I did read it, I soon realised that I was being over cautious because this is a great story about three complicated and likeable young people, who happen to have cancer. The narrator, Hazel is a sixteen year old whose most endearing characteristic is her irritation at her parents constant worrying and trying hard to make the best of her sometimes very difficult life. Her mum is bossy and controlling and her dad is very emotional, although she clearly loves and worries about them both: ‘I wanted to make them happy. There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you are sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer.’ She has an authentic voice that is often exasperated, sometimes angry and often witty. She has had terminal cancer for several years but this is under control due to being treated with an experimental new wonder drug and an attentive, often invasive, specialist medical team. She meets the love of her life at a cancer support group recommended by her doctor due to depression. The group sounds pretty ghastly, but it is a place where gallows humour can be shared between those that choose to cope in that way. Like any group of people being artificially forced together for a common reason, I suppose that one would very quickly be able to sniff out others on the same wavelength. Augustus, a sophisticated and confident seventeen year old comes to the group one day with Hazel’s soul mate, Isaac who only has one eye and is about to have the other removed due to a recurrence of cancer. Gus, who is clearly very physically attractive and has a prosthetic leg begins flirting with Hazel and so they begin their friendship based on light hearted banter, references to poetry and a shared disdain for what they describe as ‘ cancer perks’. Even writing about all this makes me aware that this is potentially difficult territory for a love story Somehow I promise you that the writer makes it work. The details about the physical and mental effects of having cancer are never avoided and I think this is really important. For instance, Hazel is constantly irritated at having to lug around an oxygen tank, becomes exhausted easily and wearily copes with a curious child who asks her about her cumbersome breathing equipment in the mall. Without giving away the plot, Hazel and Augustus make a long arduous trip from America to Amsterdam. One scene where they are being taken around Anne Frank’s house in is particularly vivid. Having struggled myself around that tiny claustrophobic tourist attraction without having any disability or health problems, her breathlessness and giddiness as she climbs the narrow stairs coupled with his physical pain was excruciating. Their final triumphant long kiss in front of the final part of the exhibition causes the other visitors to burst out in an applause which I wanted to join in! The title of the novel is a quotation from Shakespeare when Cassius says: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ but in ourselves”. Throughout, the young people are all intensely articulate and literate, perhaps because their deteriorating health has meant long periods in hospital and resting at home reading, writing and thinking. They often use language in a self –conscious, showey off adolescent way and the relationship between the two young lovers is much more about intimate clever wordplay than physical contact. But it is also about sex, tenderness, humour, rage, grief and disappointment. Augustus is such a poser with his sharp suit and his cigarettes that he never lights up, but he is so good at it making this part of his charm. So was it a manipulative book? I’m still not sure because, much to my annoyance, it did succeed in making me cry. On reflection, this was ok because I liked the characters very much and believed in them. I suggest that Augustus could easily compete with the best of literary young heroes like Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield for his wry wisdom and charisma. Having read the book which managed to tread the line between sentimentality and sensitivity so very skilfully, my next task is to watch the film version and I am nervous all over again.
Karen Argent – March 2015