If you know me then you know that when things I like become very popular it kind of makes me not want to be a part of it. When John Green won the Printz award for Looking for Alaska, I was thrilled. It was a great book (boarding school!) and absolutely deserving of the recognition. When he gave his acceptance speech it was charming and heartwarming and made it even better. He’s funny and adorable and all the librarians swooned. Now’s it several years later and phrases like “screaming librarians” and “like a rock star” get thrown around when talking about him and it just all makes me go “ugh.” However he has a hotly anticipated new book out and, well, g-d but that guy can write.
Hazel Grace and Augustus are teenagers with cancer who meet at a support group. Hazel’s cancer is in a state of “ok for now thanks to a miracle drug”, but has left her with an oxygen tank and compromised lungs. Gus has lost a leg. They’ve both faced death and are very matter of fact and not maudlin. Hazel’s favorite book of all time, which she has read many times, is about a girl dying of cancer. The book ends mid-sentence (and, as I got near the end of this book I worried anxiously that Green would do it to this book) and it drives Hazel absolutely made. She really must know how things turned out for her characters. When she introduces Augustus to the novel he, too, embraces it and they become fixated on contacting the author. The use of the novel is so interesting because the kids quote from it, so it’s like the author has another opportunity to put in things he wants to say-maybe the more philosophical stuff about the human experience. It’s really well integrated.
I love how Hazel and Gus are funny and real (well, in that way that ya characters are-no one is that funny and intellectual in real life, let’s face it.), but how they not only are not stereotypical cancer characters, they also point blank mock them and talk about how the cancer kids are more compassionate and wise but it’s just as likely a total jerk might have cancer, but you can’t say that. The relationship with their friend, Isaac, is also wonderfully drawn.
The Amsterdam stuff was very vivid for me-the whole time I pictured when Paul and I visited there. Though I’m going to admit something here-when I got to the end of the book, which I was reading in the tub, I read the acknowledgments and it said that the author got to spend two months in Amsterdam, thanks to the Dutch Literature Foundation, and all I could think was “two months to write two chapters set there? Really? and I’m sitting here in a bath that the water is never hot enough and no one’s ever going to pay me to live internationally for two months” and it got very woe is me. So the book ended on a sour note for me. And I’m sure it’s totally offensive to authors for me to express disbelief at the need for so much research/immersion (check out Brian Selznick’s prep for Wonderstruck), but I’m just saying that I could have provided the same amount of Amsterdam detail. And I visited there 6 years ago for less than a week.
Anyway, this is a beautiful heartbreaking joyful story. So well written, including a beautiful meaningful title (but a crap cover, what the heck?). As you would expect with the subject matter, this book made me completely weepy and when I finished I had to excessively hug and kiss and smother my children when I tucked them in because I couldn’t bear the thought of them having a childhood cancer. I found this book emotionally wrenching, in a good way.