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A forever within the numbered days

August 31, 2012

Readers likely won’t suspect, upon opening this spirited young adult novel, that the epigraph is made up. The source of the quote is An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten, which one would assume is a real book, with the added punch of the title referencing an Emily Dickinson poem. At some point, though, most will come to realize, as I did, An Imperial Affliction is a fictional fiction, right there with the wonder drug Phalanxifor that extends the life of the story’s 16-year-old narrator Hazel Grace Lancaster, who’s diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer. The non-existent novel is not only the source of the epigraph but also Hazel’s favorite book in the story — she describes it as “so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection [for it] feels like a betrayal.” When Hazel begins communicating with the author, I realized he and his novel couldn’t be real.

But who cares. F. Scott Fitzgerald also imagined the epigraph of The Great Gatsby. The function of this literary tool is to set the stage for what we are about to read, hint at the theme or comment on the book’s deeper meaning. In The Fault In Our Stars, John Green prepares us to experience the fickleness of time, how it can offer infinity on the one hand and nothing more than a brief flicker on the other. From there, he snares us into a powerfully engaging story that’s unforgettable and (cliché as this is) un-put-downable. It’s flat out just too hard to break away from Green’s refreshingly honest young characters, Hazel and Augustus Waters, the 17-year-old boy Hazel meets in a cancer support group. Augustus lost his leg to osteosarcoma and is now in remission from the cancer.

Both are far from any morose “why me” attitude, as well as any fairytale hope regarding their illnesses. They’re bold, funny, quirky teenagers in Indianapolis who argue with and rebel against their parents, play video games and fall in love with each other. Their romance provides a magnificent, joyful energy to the story during their texting, phoning and e-mailing, as well as their together-time at their homes and, sometimes, the hospital. They chant “the world is not a wish-granting factory” and carefully lean on each other, knowing their relationship will be lost to cancer as was Augustus’s leg. They travel to Amsterdam to meet Peter Van Houten and afterward, back in Indianapolis, they bravely experience a sad turn of events.

One of the great pleasures about young adult novels is they don’t bog down in detailed life complexities. They don’t burden us with adult worries and cogitate over profound themes. Instead, they exude youthful wonder not yet of age for difficult decisions and adult responsibility. Even here, in the harsh reality of cancer, that wonder exists as Augustus worries about disappearing into oblivion, unremembered and unremarkable, and Hazel worries about how her death will hurt her parents. These are not angst-worthy worries that drag us down, rather  active pondering that provokes our own thinking about death. It hits home.

TFIOS is a hugely popular novel, and I’m right there in the fan line. It’s so emotionally engaging and so masterful with tough topics that it gets into your system. “You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories,” Hazel says. Green’s choice is pitch-perfect. On a final note: Hazel and Augustus deliver many great lines like the aforementioned, often in an entertaining, smart-and-bothered adolescent tone. Among them is this simple one, my favorite, that Augustus says, squeezing Hazel’s hand: “It is a good life, Hazel Grace.”

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