With the movie being released today in UK cinemas, I thought it might be appropriate for me to review this novel. I don’t know what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but what I found was not what I expected at all. This is an excellent book. Of that there is little debate. It deserves all of the acclaim it receives. It is clever and nuanced. It is intellectual but also emotional. It is honest and frank. And it is beautiful.
It is rare I get to describe a book as ‘beautiful’. It sounds very hyperbole of me. But John Green is a rare talent. He is the kind of wordsmith we all aspire to be. The kind that should be studied in school. The kind that makes writing into an art-form. Whenever I read a book, I keep a pen and pad near me so I can jot down page numbers for any quotes I really like, both for blogging purposes but also for my own reference. Normally, I end up with four or five numbers. With this book, I found I had to stop myself writing down numbers else I may as well have just written out numbers one to two hundred. I list a few of my absolute favourites below. This book is a masterclass. His use of metaphors and humour are unparalleled to anything else I’ve read. If for no other reason, this book should be read simply to explore how to write. It is the kind of book that takes your breath away with sudden moments of profoundness that cling to you.
The characters are wonderful. Hazel will become a part of you as you read. She opened my eyes. She humbled me actually. It is amazing to find a male author who can write such real female leads. Green’s hand is light so you don’t hear him, only her through the narrative. She is funny and smart. And funnily enough, she is in the very select group of being strong female leads. She isn’t a Bella Swan. She is the type of person I hope kids can find inspiration in. Hell, adults too. Augustus will warm and break your heart. I’ve read reviews that say his intellect makes him an implausible character but I never questioned it. It was framed in such a way for me to believe it. I love that no one in this book is ‘perfect’. Everyone is touched by illness. They wear their illnesses. It makes the book feel closer. And Isaac… funnily enough of all of them, he was the character I was most touched by. His story really got to me.
This is a ‘Cancer’ book. It fits along side My Sister’s Keeper, PS I love you and all of those and yet it is completely different. It is brutally frank. The story is told through the eyes of a sixteen year old and no rough edge is smoothed for the sake of the reader. Indeed, it is something the book itself touches on regularly. In normal cancer books its always the brave character who fights but eventually dies and normally the tale is told from the POV of one of the ‘healthy’ characters. I am an exceptionally lucky person in that I have never seen cancer close up, but I sense this book is a lot closer to its reality. Hazel is real. She has flaws and insecurities. She is rough and doesn’t always think the right things. And from the beginning, she is dying. But strangely, I found this isn’t a book about dying so much as a book about people. Most cancer books, when stripped back to basics, are about the living. About the survivors and the aftermath. This book is about the dead. It is about fears of oblivion and not being remembered. It is about an acceptance and resignation to death while longing to live. This may sound cynical, but most ‘cancer’ books you read because you want that indulgence in deep emotion while keeping it at arms length. It’s about remembering that life can go on. And it is also about the relief that you can shut the book and make it go away. We read them and think ‘thank God that’s not me’. This is a book that instead makes you think ‘I hope to hell I could be even half that brave’ (ironic perhaps as she spends most of the book disdainful of this idea of cancer fighters). You don’t pity the characters. You admire them.
There are a lot of themes running through this book. The two books, his favourite and hers, form the backbone of who they are. From a writer’s point of view, I love the exploration of writing and its role in different people’s lives. Which brings me to the title. When I read where that came from early on in the book, I literally stopped and had a ‘wow’ moment. He could not have chosen a more befitting title.
Oddly enough, I am not looking forward to seeing this as a movie (despite it currently being the number 1 film in America). I don’t think it will work as well. I think you will lose the essence of Hazel and Augustus. Then again, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single movie I prefer to the book it was spawned from, so maybe I’m biased. To me, you can’t Hollywoodise this story. I don’t want the characters to be neatened up and packaged. Even in the promo shots I’ve seen, the two actors chosen look too clean, too Hollywood for the story. This book is in part about the ugliness of the illness. I love the rawness of the book. It is what makes it what it is. So I really hope I’m wrong.
One thing I was warned going it was that this was a ‘waterproof mascara’ sort of a book. The kind you don’t read on the train unless you want to start sobbing in front of total strangers. But it didn’t make me cry. It got to me deeper than that. It was sad but my mind was more wrapped around the ideas it presented. I was moved rather than upset. And I will say that sometimes, I was so distracted by the writing that the story sometimes actually ended up taking a bit of a back-seat (sadly a side-effect of being a writer).
There are only two complaints I would make about this book. First, the story with Van Houten felt rushed. I pretty much worked out where it was going but it just didn’t seem resolved, but equally didn’t feel deliberately unresolved, it just sort of hung. And second, this book should have finished in the middle of a sentence. I know it doesn’t make as much literal sense to the story as in An Imperial Affliction but I think it would have rounded off the whole message and feel of the book better. I was honestly expecting it and a little disappointed (though beautiful ending).
This is what I call a ‘must read’. It is the kind of book you need to take a few days, away from everyone else and just get lost in. This book deserves your time.
Rating: 10-10: A brilliant book. A must read.
Favourite (8) Quotes: “so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlive four of these bastards”
“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. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this […] will have been for naught. 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. There was a time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. If the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”
“Like: Congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die.”
“This is an old argument in the field of Thinking About Suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate.”
“I don’t believe that everybody gets to […] not get sick or whatever, but everybody should have true love, and it should last at least as long as your life does.”
“Off topic, but: What a slut time is. She screws everybody.”
“It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you.”
“It occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always that thought that everything might be done better and again.”
Favourite Character: Isaac
Least Favourite Character: Van Houten