Sixteen-year-old Hazel has terminal cancer. She meets hot-bodied Augustus (17) at the local support group. He is in remission having lost a leg. Together they read a book about a a young child having cancer; the book ends mid-sentence and, desperate to know what happened to the other characters they get in touch with the author, who lives in Amsterdam. As they fall in love, disease, and plot twists threaten their happiness.
Hazel writes with vicious humour about the world of teenage cancer sufferers and the ways that other people who are going to live try to make mortality bearable. Isaac beats cancer by sacrificing his eyes; his girlfriend dumps him before the operation because you can't dump a blind boy. Caroline died of brain cancer which made her really nasty towards the end. From Cancer Perks (the little benefits you get when people feel sorry for you) to wetting the bed, from not daring to fall in love in case your death destroys the one you love to climbing the stairs when you lungs are filling with fluid, this book is exceptional.
As in Paper Towns, Green's portrayal of challenged, intelligent, wise-beyond-their-years teenagers is exceptional. Hazel's humour in the face of adversity (or as she might put it: Humour. In. The. Face. Of. Adversity.) is matched only by that of Augustus. When they want to travel to Amsterdam they seek funding from the Wish Genies but Hazel has already used her wish when she was 13. "What'd you do?" asks Augustus. "I sighed loudly. 'I was thirteen,' I said. 'Not Disney,' he said. I said nothing. 'You did not go to Disney World'. I said nothing. 'Hazel GRACE,' he shouted. 'You did not use your one dying Wish to go to Disney World with your parents.' 'Also Epcott Center,' I mumbled. 'Oh my God,' Augustus said. 'I can't believe I have a crush on a girl with such cliche wishes.' 'I was thirteen,' I said again, although of course I was only thinking crush crush crush crush crush."
But there are many harder moments. When she meets Isaac for the first time after his eye operation she tells him 'I have gotten really hot since you went blind.' There is the moment when she mentions that having cancer is a side effect of the mutation that caused evolution; her tragedy, her existence, is nothing more than a side effect. When they finally meet the famous author (who is horrible to them) he asks Augustus: "'Did you close the deal with that chick yet?' Whereupon I encountered for the first and only time a truly speechless Augustus Waters. 'I,' he started, 'um, I, Hazel, um. Well.'" But, to start with at least, she can't kiss him because she is frightened he will care about her too much and be hurt when she dies; she compares her death to a grenade going off that will hurt a lot of people.
As well as the enormously attractive characters, there is a lot of reality. Her lungs filling with fluid make it hard for her to climb stairs, sometimes even eating is exhausting. He finds it difficult to get into the back seat of a car because of his prosthesis. She carts an oxygen tank with her everywhere. And her mum is doing a course in social work so she will be able to have a meaning to life after Hazel dies but she doesn't tell Hazel because how can you tell your child that you are thinking about your life after their death?
This book has everything: gritty reality, soaring romance, and a pulsating vitality injected with eternal humour even in the moments of greatest darkness. October 2015; 313 pages
Another dark US teen novel is Stephen Chobsky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57