John Green. For sure, his plots are full of surprises that keep me turning pages, his characters are complex and intriguing, and he achieves the right mix of funny and sad. But what I really loved about his latest YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars, (Check out the Washington Post review) was his ability to ask questions through characters and story, for which there are no answers, and get us to think. This novel is a sad, dark, scary but interesting, and actually fun ride.
For instance, the most basic question is this: What is it like to be seventeen years old with a terminal illness? The question is nuanced with each character in the novel, as they face different prognoses and different life expectancies.
Hazel Grace, the protagonist, has metastatic thyroid cancer "With long settled" colonies in her lungs. She carries an oxygen tank and wields tubing and nasal prongs wherever she goes. She has responded to an experimental drug which unexpectedly worked. How long she will live with her disease, no one knows. Augustus, the boy she meets in support group and falls in love with, has lost a leg to osteosarcoma. There is an eighty percent chance he is cured, but that 20 percent lurks in his consciousness. Will it come back? The feel of uncertainty these characters confront is evoked by every page of this novel.
The reader will inevitably put herself in Hazel and Augustus' places and ask: Do kids with cancer long to experience love like other teens? Do they have the same yearnings and dreams? Do we agree with Hazel that it is irresponsible to encourage a boy's love when her life is measured in a few short years or even months?
Then there is Isaac who has been blinded in one eye by a tumor and " . . . a recurrence had placed his remaining eye in mortal peril." To live a long life, he must sacrifice his vision. What would that be like?
Green does not talk down to his readers. There is information in this book that would stretch any adult intellect. For instance, Green inserts facts about cancer he gleaned from Siddartha Mukherjee's nonfiction work, The Emperor of All Maladies, that the cancer is in our human genome and the possibility of its expression is in everyone, when and if the gene become uninhibited. It's part of us.
Compelling passages pop up all through The Fault of Our Stars, as this one spoken by Hazel Grace, a smart girl with a long view and a sense of humor:
There will come a time . . . when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. . . Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. . . .And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that's what everyone else does.
That's what having cancer does, it invites deep thoughts. Green's engaging storytelling adds hope to a story about kids with cancer. Of course, the overwhelming majority of teens don't get cancer and can look to the future without the immediate weight of it. But about those who do have cancer, and there are thousands of survivors and kids in treatment, perhaps this novel can teach us empathy through story and character.
Whether teens can learn empathy by reading this story is another question with no answer but I'm leaning towards a yes.
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