Early in John Green's new novel, The Fault in Our Stars, 16-year-old Hazel offers her succinct opinion of novels about people with cancer: "Cancer books suck." This may or may not be true (I haven't read a lot of cancer books), but either way it's an extraordinary thing for Hazel to say, given that she is the narrator of a cancer book--one that, moreover, does not suck. In fact, it is damn near genius.
Hazel has cancer herself: "thyroid originally but with an impressive and long-settled satellite colony in my lungs." The lung cancer keeps her permanently short of breath and forces her to haul around an oxygen canister. At a support group for teenagers with cancer, Hazel meets Augustus, who has lost a leg to osteosarcoma. Like Hazel, Gus has a lively intelligence and a pleasant, debonair wit. These are their primary weapons against the disease that is slowly eating them alive. Hazel and Gus begin a slow, decorous courtship--or as decorous as is possible between two inexperienced teenagers with an oxygen canister and a prosthetic leg between them.
The subject of cancer, especially in children, is surrounded by a huge--one could almost say tumorous--mass of sentimental rhetoric, and as Gus and Hazel circle each other, they work self-consciously against it, irradiating it with their merciless scorn. "You are familiar," Gus asks, "with the trope of the stoic and determined cancer victim who heroically fights her cancer with inhuman strength and never complains or stops smiling even at the very end, etcetera?" Gus and Hazel refuse to be tropes. Instead they construct a new kind of cancer rhetoric, one that looks straight on at the unbearable fact that they are monstrously unlucky and stand a good chance of dying young.
Not even Shakespeare is exempt from Green's rhetoric-reform program. The book's title is a reference to Julius Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves." Hazel's fault lies not in herself but in her stars, more precisely in her biology. "Cancer kids," she says, "are essentially side effects of the relentless mutation that made the diversity of life on earth possible." She and Gus are evolution's collateral damage. The discipline with which Green keeps his camera trained on the tragedy at the center of the book, waving off any of the usual novelistic sops and prevarications, is simply devastating.
The Fault in Our Stars doesn't just dispense with fake sentiment; it offers us a powerful shot of the real stuff in its place. The love between Hazel and Gus--the courage and humor with which they manage their grief for each other and for themselves--is as real and intense as any I've seen in recent fiction, young adult or otherwise. One doesn't like to throw around phrases like "instant classic" lightly, but I can see The Fault in Our Stars taking its place alongside Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret in the young-adult canon.