Tuesday, January 1, 2013

1-1-13 A Fault in Our Stars

I am not, generally speaking, a Young Adult literature reader. My daughter has the market cornered there, and I've given a few of them a go, only to discover, alas, am I not only not a young adult, but that I am so far afield from the target audience as to need a passport just to get through the first chapter.

(Harry Potter doesn't count.)

I was turned on to John Green's A Fault in Our Stars by another woman my age, whom I've never met and who has no idea that I faithfully read her blog each day that she publishes. You can find Varda at SquashedMom.com

I suppose it says enough about my estimation of her that, as soon as I read her review, I bought the book and began reading it. I also consumed the whole thing in two days, knowing I should slow down but being incapable of doing so, a bit like a drowning man with the person in arm's reach.

After I'd finished it, I mentioned, in passing, to Sammi that there was a new book on the Kindle (we share the account) that I thought she'd like. As soon as I told her the name, she shrieked, "by John Green?!?!" Apparently, as usual, I am a little late to the party. She was an ardent follower of his YouTube channel, but she hadn't read the book, because she hadn't had any money to buy it. 

This response is a bit late in coming, because I'm hesitant to really share my feelings about the book with people who may not have read it. You know the drill. You find someone effusive about a novel and they talk about it so much, you let yourself believe the cheat, "Oh, well, now that I know what happens, no need to read it myself."

Or you hear the premise and think, "No thank you. Reading about dying teenagers would make me sad and I don't like to be sad" which really makes me nuts because 1) it's not a sad book and 2) even it was a sad book, why are people so afraid of experiencing an emotion that, at its core, is about catharsis?

So, if you trust me, go read the book and then come back and read the meandering review/response below, then message me, and we'll have a lovely conversation where I take away more and you take away more and the world feels a little more right for having shared that moment.

And if you're going to cheat and read the only the review and be one of those people then I can't stop you, even though I'd like to.

It's really not much a review, when you get down to it. It's part synopsis with lots of quotes that I loved thrown in for good measure, and only a small bit of actual reviewing, because when you really love a book, you willingly lose all objectivity and want to just share that love with others in some off-putting hippie-lovefest-way that you have zero control over. But I will try.

Hazel is seventeen and dying. This is simply a complete matter of fact and there is no sentimentality to be had here, so if you are a fan of Chicken Soup for the Soul, then you'd best be on your way, because neither of us would be happy if you read this book. Her Stage IV thyroid cancer has metastasized to her lungs and an experimental drug is keeping their growth in check, for now. 

Hazel is a bookish smart-ass who bears a bit of resemblance to a girl I know, and the girl's mother, whom I know even better. I'm sure this has a lot to do with our mutual love for the story.

At the opening, Hazel discusses her forced to attendance at Support Group, which, as she admits on the first page of the novel, is "depressing as hell." 

The group is held in a church that is shaped like a cross, and the room that they meet in is in the axis. The group's leader is Patrick, who has a fondness for pointing out the symbolism of meeting in the sacred heart of Christ, and the only friend she has at these meetings is Isaac, who has already lost one eye to cancer. "Isaac and I communicated almost exclusively through sighs. Each time someone discussed anticancer diets or snorting ground-up shark fin or whatever, he'd glance over at me and sigh ever so slightly."

The first chapter of the novel in fact is so hilariously true and anti-maudlin that you must be hooked by the end of it. If you aren't, even if you don't like Chicken Soup for the Soul, you should walk away. Far away, please.

So here's how it went in God's heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story -- how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn't die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master's degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life. AND YOU TOO MIGHT BE SO LUCKY!
. . . .
And then began the circle jerk of support: everyone talking about fighting and battling and winning and shrinking and scanning. To be fair to Patrick, he let us talk about dying, too. But most of them weren't dying. Most would live into adulthood, as Patrick had. Which  meant there was quite a lot of competitiveness about it, with everybody wanting to beat not only cancer, 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 the think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlast four of these bastards.

And then Isaac brings Augustus along to the meeting for support, just before Isaac has to undergo the removal of his second eye to save his life. 

After a flirt-fest at group, in which Augustus and Hazel can't quite stop interacting, he invites her over to his house. Since Gus has lost his leg to osteosarcoma, he drives like a maniac because he can't control the pressure from his leg through his prosthetic foot. They eat enchiladas with his parents and watch V for Vendetta and talk about favorite books, which, I admit, is pretty fantastical for a fictional teenager conversation. But it's what Hazel says about her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction,  that has, according to Kindle, been highlighted thousands of times by readers.

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affection, which you can't tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal. 

[And the adorable thing about this special and rare book is that it sounds absolutely horrid. ]

AIA is about this girl named Anna (who narrates the story) and her one-eyed mom, who is a professional gardener obsessed with tulips, and they have a normal lower-middle class life in a little central California town until Anna gets this rare blood cancer. But it's not a cancer book, because cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy. But in AIA Ana decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic  so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera.  .   .  . So the story goes on, she gets sicker, the treatments and disease racing to kill her, and her mom falls in love with this Dutch tulip trader trader Anna called the Dutch Tulip Man. The Dutch Tulip Man has lots of money and very eccentric ideas about how to treat cancer, but Anna thinks this guy might be a con man and possibly not even Dutch, and then just as the possibly Dutch guy and her mom are about to get married and Anna is about to start this crazy new treatment regimen involving wheatgrass and low doses of arsenic, the ends right in the middle of a

I know it's a very literary decision and everything and probably part of the reason I love the book so much but there is something to recommend a story that ends.

So Hazel has written to Peter Van Houten, the writer of AIA who has never written anything else, asking him to please clear up whether Dutch Tulip Man was a con man, and what happens to Sisyphus, Anna's hamster.

And Augustus has agreed to read it, when Hazel tells him it is her favorite book.

A few days later, as she gets out of a movie with her mom, she has four text messages.

1. Tell me my copy is missing the last twenty pages or something.

2. Hazel Grace, tell me I have not reached end of this book.


4. I guess Anna died and so it just ends? CRUEL. Call me when you can.

And so she does, and Isaac is over at Augustus' house in a terrible state because his girlfriend has decided she wants to break up before the surgery makes him blind, and so instead of talking about the book, they try to keep Isaac from losing his mind. And then a week goes by, and Hazel is left wondering when he call (because it is his turn) and then when she can't stand it anymore, she dials him. 

"Hazel Grace," he said

Hi," I said. "How are you?"

"Grand," he said. "I have been wanting to call you on a nearly minutely basis, but I have been waiting until I could form a coherent thought in re An Imperial Affliction." (He said "in re." He really did. That boy.)

And, as it turns out, he has tracked down Van Houten's assistant who passed his email on to the author, who wrote long hand a terribly loquaciousness reply which the assistant typed out in an email reply, which Gus reads to Hazel.

"Wow," I said. "Are you making this up?"

"Hazel Grace, could I, with my meager intellectual capacities, make up a letter from Peter Van Houten featuring phrases like 'our triumphantly digitized contemporaneity?"

"You could not," I allowed. "Can I, can I have the email address?"

"Of course," Augustus said, like it was not the best gift ever.

So she composes this huge email, sends it, and doesn't hear back. Augustus got an answer back in four hours. But hers? Nothing.

A few days later, finally, a reply comes. 

And basically, in Van Houten's laborious language, he tells her he would never be able to answer her questions unless they were to meet in person, closing with "Should you find yourself in Amsterdam, however, please do pay a visit at your leisure."

Of course, her parents don't have the money to fly Hazel to Amsterdam to talk to a reclusive writer of a single novel who won't use technology in order to discover what happened to Sisyphus the hamster. 

But Augustus still has his Wish. And in his awkward adolescent way, taking Hazel out to the park after giving her orange tulips and producing Dutch cheese at their picnic, he announces that he has arranged to spend his Wish taking Hazel to Amsterdam with her mother.

As he touches her face, she draws away and spends the rest of the night puzzling over that reaction. After looking at Augustus' last girlfriend's Facebook page, filled with thousands of notes after her death, the one that sums up her fears is this: "We just all miss you so much. It just never ends. It feels like we were all wounded in your battle."

With this epiphany, she announces to her parents

"I'm a grenade," I said again. "I just want to stay away from people and read books and think and be with you guys because there's nothing I can do about hurting you; you're too invested, so just least let me do that okay? I'm not depressed. I don't need to get out more. And I can't be a regular teenager, because I'm a grenade."

She texts Augustus that she can't be with him, explaining, "When I try to look at you like that, all I see is what I'm going to put you through."

And then, she explodes. 

She wakes up a couple of days later in ICU, having collapsed with a liter and a half of fluid on her lungs and her heart giving out. Augustus camps out in the waiting room for a week until he can finally deliver another missive from Van Houten (on letterhead emblazoned Pater Van Houten, Novelist Emeritus, no less):

Dear Mr. Waters,

I am in receipt of your electronic mail dated the 14th of April and duly impressed by the Shakespearean complexity of your tragedy. Everyone in this tale has a rock-solid hamartia: hers, that she is so sick; yours, that you are so well. Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terrible crossed, but it is the nature of 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." Easy enough to say when you're a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars. . .

Now I should pause in this synopsis to note that all of this is a fabulously lovely parallel to just being any teenager, the Edward-Scissorhands-Syndrome that everything you touch will be destroyed.

So, as an aside that really doesn't belong in a synopsis because it doesn't move the plot along, but I've skipped over so many, and I can't leave this one out, we must touch on the Swingset of Tears.

Hazel goes home and is too sick to go to Amsterdam and finds herself sitting in the backyard crying, focused on an the old swing set that her dad had made. She calls Augustus, who comes over to see the "swingset of tears"

I nudged my head into his shoulder. "Thanks for offering to come over."

"You realize that trying to keep your distance from me will not lessen my affection for you," he said.

"I guess?" I said.

"All efforts to save me from you will fail," he said.

"Why? Why would you even like me? Haven't you put yourself through enough of this?" I asked, thinking of Caroline Mathers.

Gus didn't answer. He just held on to me, his fingers strong against my left arm. "We gotta do something about this frigging swing set," he said. "I'm telling you, it's ninety percent of the problem."

They make up an ad for Craig's List to get rid of it that makes them both laugh, and Augustus says, "You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are." And later, as he's reading An Imperial Affliction to her, "'Mother's glass eye turned inward,'" Augustus began [I LOVE THE AWFULNESS OF THIS BOOK!] As he read, I fell in love the way you fell asleep: slowly, and then all at once.

And then her doctor clears her to travel.

On the flight over, as if I wasn't already in love with Hazel, when Augustus asks her if she can recite any poetry for him, she recites Prufrock, and as she pauses, Augustus interrupts.

"I'm in love with you," he said quietly.

"Augustus," I said.

"I am," he said. he was staring at me, and I could see the corners of his eyes crinkling. "I'm in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I am in love with you"

They are treated to a lavish dinner at Oranjee in the Jordaan in this magical moment, when the iepen (elms) release their seeds, which look like tiny pale rose petals, floating everywhere, with champagne and a table overlooking the canal, eating things like lavender infused asparagus. The next day, they finally meet Peter Van Houten.

And he is an unimaginably offensive, very drunk, louse.

He doesn't want them there, doesn't want to talk about the book, and rails against his assistant, Lidwij, who arranged everything including their fabulous dinner the night before. His living room is filled with trash bags filled with fan mail he refuses to read. As he explains, "I frankly find the reality of readers wholly unappealing." He refuses to answer their questions, preferring instead to wax philosophical over Swedish hip-hop, even though he doesn't speak Swedish, and insult Gus and Hazel at every turn. At the end, the entire encounter has disintegrated into a shouting Hazel, Lidwij's resignation on the spot, and no answers.

Lidwij takes them to Anne Frank's house, where Hazel insists on struggling up the endless stairs, gasping, but joking with Augustus, and then they are kissing, and they are hopelessly in love. It's a lot better than that in the book, but some things you just have to read on your own.

And on their last day in Amsterdam, Augustus finally admits to Hazel that his cancer has returned, like a lion, devouring the small bit of time they might have had left. The last third of the book is the final two months in which Augustus slips away and Hazel is left on the other side of the grenade.

One of the less bullshitty conventions of the cancer kid genre is the Last Good Day convention, wherein the victim of cancer finds herself with some unexpected hours when it seems like the inexorable decline has suddenly plateaued, when the pain is for a moment bearable. The problem,. of course, is that there's no way of knowing that your last good day is your Last Good Day.

On Augustus' Last Good Day, he asks her to meet him at the Literal Heart of Jesus to give him a eulogy that he will actually get to hear.

And this is it.

My name is Hazel. Augustus Waters was the great star-crossed love of my life. Ours was an epic love story, and I won't be able to get more than a sentence into it without disappearing into a puddle of tears. Gus knew. Gus knows. I will not tell you our love story, because -- like all real love stories -- it will die with us, as it should. I'd hoped that he'd be eulogizing me, because there's no one I'd rather have...." I started crying. "Okay, how not to cry. Okay..."

I took a few breaths and went back to the page. "I can't talk about our love story, so I will talk about math. I am not a mathematician, but I know this: There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There's .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful.

Eight days later, Augustus is gone. Five days after that, Hazel is at his real funeral, the description of which is one of the best accounts of how funerals actually feel to the heartbroken. To her horror, so is Peter Van Houten.

When it is her turn to speak, "I went on spouting bullshit Encouragements as Gus's parents, arm in arm, hugged each other and nodded at every word. Funerals, I had decided, are for the living."

Isaac asks Hazel later if Augustus had given her the sequel to An Imperial Affliction that he'd been trying to write her.

And it at this point, that I must leave the ending to the readers of the book entire. 

You see, you get to a point, where all of the little diversions and side-tracks finally come together at the final destination into something much bigger than themselves, and to even attempt to recreate that picture for someone who hasn't taken the whole journey would cheapen it beyond comprehension. 

Read the book, if the above has interested you at all. Fall in love with the characters in the only way you can,  one sentence at a time so that when the end comes, you will feel it in your bones, because they are you in a more true way than you can put into words. 


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