Let me start this off by saying that I’ve wanted to post this review for a very long time (I read the book back in 2014!) and it wasn’t until I posted a review of John Green’s debut novel, Looking For Alaska, recently that I realised I never actually uploaded it. *Facepalm.
Originally, I was really wary of starting this book because I’d heard that it’s sad enough to reduce even grown men into sobbing messes, but I finally gave in, and I’m so glad I did…
Hazel Grace Lancaster is a sixteen year old terminal cancer patient. Augustus Waters is a seventeen year old cancer survivor. When a chance meeting at a local support group throws them together nothing in their limited number of days will ever be quite the same.
Now I know what you’re thinking, something along the lines of ‘well that sounds depressing’, am I right? To you I say take that assumption and throw it away, go on, I’ll wait. Because this book is anything but. I won’t deny that it is sad in places, but it’s also crammed full of wit, humour, joy and…life. On the surface cancer seems to be the main theme running through it, but beyond that the story isn’t about cancer; it’s about first love and enjoying the life you have, appreciating every moment.
One afternoon when her mother sends her to the dreaded Support Group, Hazel bumps – and I mean literally bumps – into ‘new guy’ Augustus Waters, who we later find out, is in remission after his own battle with cancer. The two quickly strike up a friendship and, despite Hazel’s attempts to keep Gus at arm’s length and all the obstacles they face in light of illness, Gus is adorably persistent and slowly but surely their relationship develops.
The story is told from Hazel’s point of view; Hazel has “never been anything but terminal”, and she knows it. She’s a very selfless and strong character, and one of the great things about her is that she is very much a realist about the situation without ever whining or wasting time being bitter about it. She knows she is eventually going to pass away and retains this dark, sarcastic wit – which gave me a chuckle or two when reading.
Augustus is very similar, but his humour is more light-hearted; he comes across as a very happy-go-lucky kind of guy and he’s not afraid to say how he feels. He speaks in a very eloquent manner, but I feel that John Green managed to make this an endearing trait rather than a pompous one – you can’t really help but fall in love with him.
I really enjoyed reading this book and I thought Green’s writing style was very faithful to that of a sixteen old, in the best possible sense, making it relatable and believable. In the book, when speaking of her favourite novel (An Imperial Affliction) and its author, Hazel says: “Peter Van Houten was the only person I’d ever come across who seemed to (a) understand what it’s like to be dying, and (b) not have died.” Arguably, the same could be said for Green because the characters are brilliantly written; not just in the main character’s cases, but the surrounding characters like Issac, Hazel’s parents and Van Houten. They’re all fleshed out, three-dimensional characters and it’s easy to imagine them as real people, because at their core, the struggles they each deal with aren’t too far-fetched from reality.
For example, I feel that Hazel’s fruitless quest for answers to what happens after the end of An Imperial Affliction – and what becomes of the remaining characters – stems from a need to know that her own parents will be okay when she is gone. So, once she finds out her parents future plans, seems to care less about a confirmation from Van Houten (along with the fact that he turned out to be a total douche-pants.) Similarly, Gus has a preoccupation with wanting to be remembered; to lead an extraordinary life and leave an iconic mark on the world, because, let’s face it, nobody wants to be forgotten.
Despite how it may sound the book isn’t heavy, or ‘all-doom-and-gloom’ by any means; there is some light relief in there that adds some more comedy to the story. For instance, when Hazel and Gus encourage Issac to vent his frustration over his recent break-up, and the three of them (rather comically) throw eggs at his ex-girlfriend’s car. Having said that, the story is written in a very poignant way that does tug on the heartstrings (yes, I did shed a few tears when I got to the last few chapters.)
Ultimately, it’s a bittersweet loves story with the sentiment that you don’t have to live a long life, to live a meaningful life. It’s about finding the good in the worst of situations and appreciating what you have; finding the joy in those moments and holding on to them. It’s the kind of book that opens your eyes and makes you look at life, and the world, a little differently. It’s a good life, and you only get one – so live it.