Hear Me Review: A Teen Novel That Will Break And Heal Your Heart

Tall Dark and Bookish

We don't tend to love books whose main characters are terminal. We spend our days occupying ourselves with work and play to avoid the reality that since we are all aging, we are all dying. No one leaps at the chance to read the story of a girl with stage 4 thyroid cancer--too depressing. I'm telling you now to not let that determine your decision whether to pick this one up. As someone with his own fear complex regarding death and oblivion, I can say without a doubt that The Fault In Our Stars is the exception.

On the first page, Hazel, the protagonist, says "But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.)" From there on out, the tone is set. Hazel's statement sounds depressing at first, but really, she is giving us some very good news: since everything is a side effect of dying, and everything we do can be considered the matter that makes up our lives, then dying is evidence that we have lived, that we wear our existence in the form of cuts on our knees, white hair, and laugh lines branching from the outmost corners of our eyes. Dying means that you existed.

Granted, I don't think I've cried more from reading a book than when I read this. John Green makes it near impossible to not love Hazel and Augustus, the "gorgeous plot-twist" she meets at a cancer support group. Both characters are drawn with dry senses of humor, sharp wit and profound perspectives on what it means to be alive and fall in love. From what I gathered, it usually means accepting the fact that joys and tragedies are often concomitant of one another. When something builds up joy, that joy, by having simply been built, is at risk of being brought down by one of the myriad side effects of dying (or living).

If there were ever a call to action in Green's novel, it would be to let yourself do both. Live and love despite the ensuing tragedy of one day losing what you love or being lost from the world yourself. Tomorrow, after all, is guaranteed to no one. Cancer grows without an eye for the character or benevolence of its host, and cars with distracted drivers come out of nowhere. Which, I guess, is a dramatic way of saying, shit happens.

Here's a minor/major spoiler alert depending on how you read. It speaks loudly and clearly to the very idea of shit happening and it not being our fault:

If you're anything like the twelve-year-old school girl living in my brain, you'll love that Green references the title in the novel. It happens when Augustus writes to Hazel's favorite author for her in an attempt to get him explain the ending of her favorite book. They get a letter back from him, and he points out that the "Shakespearean complexity of [their] tragedy," stems from how ill Hazel is at this point and how not ill Augustus is, a microcosmic comparison of all the sick people in the world and all those that are healthy:

"Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed, but it is in the nature of our stars to cross and never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves'... but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars."

The 'Fault,' capital F, in our stars is the simple metaphor of life's gargantuanly complex (spoiler: Green likes adverbs) and relentless nature. The biggest fault in us, and there definitely is one, is denying ourselves the indulgence of what we love. Regardless of the paths our stars make when they cross, though terrible they may be, refusing to take part is to refuse the prospect of happiness and all its side effects. For compassion, we sacrifice our contentedness, and then live with the eruptions of both joy and tragedy that wear on both our skin and our two hearts--the one physically beating in our chests and the figurative one that makes us beat on our chests.

As a playful Augustus puts it:

"... [even when] the robots recall the human absurdities of sacrifice and compassion, they will remember us."

"They will robot-laugh at our courageous folly... But something in their iron robot hearts will yearn to have lived and died as we did: on the hero's errand."

Green's novel is the exception to the sad-cancer-genre for this reason: it makes it absolutely clear that rewarding our survival with joy is, in fact, heroic.

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