[This heart-breaking young adult cancer novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: John Green

2012, Dutton Books

Filed under: Literary, Young Adult

A week ago, I had the urge to read John Green’s phenomenally popular young adult novel about a girl with cancer. I just assumed that we’d already reviewed The Fault in Our Stars, since it’s absolutely everywhere, so when I went to find out who I should borrow it from, I was shocked to find no mention of it anywhere on Chamber Four. So let’s correct that now.

I’ll keep this short, because I don’t imagine I’ll be telling you anything you haven’t already heard, as TFIOS is that rare, pleasurable case where a huge hit lives up to considerable expectations. The book follows Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old who’s been suffering from thyroid cancer since she was 13. She should be dead by the time the book opens (her prognosis, she tells us, has always been “terminal”), except for a fictional drug called Phalanxifor, which is keeping the cancer in check but can’t eliminate it.

Hazel’s parents encourage her to go to a support group for kids with cancer, where she meets Isaac, a boy who will soon have his one remaining eye removed to cut out a tumor, and Augustus Waters, a 17-year-old boy who lost a leg to osteosarcoma. Hazel and Augustus start a relationship, and decide to go on what will probably be Hazel’s last adventure, a trip to see her favorite author.

This premise—kids with cancer falling in love—is not my usual cup of tea, but Green writes it with just the right combination of humor and pathos, universality and unique insight. Intense explorations of the nature of pain and mortality coexist alongside funny teenagery moments.

For example, here’s an early passage at the support group, when Hazel discusses the cynical side of telling your cancer story:

there was quite a lot of competitiveness about it, with everybody wanting to beat not only cancer itself, but also the other people in the room. Like, I realize that this is irrational, but when they tell you that you have, say, a 20 percent chance of living five years, the math kicks in and you figure that’s one in five … so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlast four of these bastards.

Then, after Augustus Waters gets there:

I cut a glance to him, and his eyes were still on me.

It occurred to me why they call it eye contact. […]

Look, let me just say it: He was hot. A nonhot boy stares at you relentlessly and it is, at best, awkward and, at worst, a form of assault. But a hot boy… well.

That witty, eloquent voice makes the book fun to read even as the cancer inevitably wreaks its havoc. Though Green has fictionalized a few choice breaks for Hazel and co., he doesn’t allow the romanticism of the central love story escape the sobering reality of either cancer or life.

Green also creates a few scene-stealing side characters, most notably Hazel’s favorite author. But if you’ve made it this far without knowing more about him, I won’t be the one to spoil it.

Suffice it to say, this is a great book that will appeal to almost anybody.

Similar reads: The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee;  Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore; Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson