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Cancer novel balances humor, gravity

Novels about cancer need to walk a tight rope if they wish to be successful. If the story is too focused on death and how truly horrible cancer is, the book is depressing and exhausting to read. If the author smothers the novel in witty insights, it can be seen an offensive and demeaning to cancer patients.

The Fault in Our Stars, the latest from New York Times Best-Selling author John Green, strikes a near-perfect balance between the two in a manner that is, frankly, kind of stunning. The book was released Jan. 10.

The novel is narrated by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old girl diagnosed with thyroid cancer three years prior, now forced to carry around a tank of oxygen everywhere she goes.

Since dropping out of high school on account of her illness, Hazel doesn’t have many friends. The only person she hangs out with on a regular basis is Katilyn, a bizarre, pseudo-British girl who Hazel used to go to school with.

One day, at her a bleak cancer support meeting, Hazel meets and immediately falls in love with Augustus Waters, a 17-year-old boy who is in remission from osteosarcoma, which caused the amputation of his right leg. Augustus is at the group to provide comfort for his friend, Issac, a regular at the meetings who will soon have a surgery that will result in the loss of his eyesight, and hopefully the tumor in his retina.

During a conversation with Augustus, Hazel introduces him to An Imperial Affliction, a novel about cancer written by Peter Van Houten, a man who has not written any books since, has moved to Amsterdam and will not reply to any of Hazel’s letters about the novel’s ambiguous ending.

This is all I will say about the plot of this novel, as I do not wish to give anything away. The book delivers a low-key sense of adventure that needs to be experienced before it can be described.

Unlike most cancer novels, The Fault in Our Stars is not nearly as depressing as it sounds. Green is so talented that he can take a conversation that takes place after a life-altering surgery and make it one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time.

That being said, the novel is, at times, heartbreaking, especially in its last hundred pages or so. The humor in the earlier two-thirds actually makes the climax hit harder than you think it will be. It’s kind of astonishing.

The characters also help hit home this bittersweet sense of realism. Hazel speaks like any normal teenage girl, and acts like one too. To quote the novel, “I am not made of my cancer, my cancer is made of me.” This holds true for Augustus, as well. Despite being the male version of a manic-pixie-dream girl, his character has a greater depth that is slowly revealed throughout the novel.

This disregard for cliches is also carried over to the minor characters of Hazel’s parents. In the hands of any other author, these characters would be one of two things. They would either be physically abusive drunks, or overly-supportive balls of kindness who constantly talk about how “brave” Hazel is.

Instead, Green gives these characters depth and realism. They are very supportive of Hazel to emotionally help her through stress, but they also act like real parents in the way they punish her for behavior.

However, the near-perfect sense of realism is not kept in the last three chapters of the novel, which feel a little too clean for their own good. Yet, a slightly misguided ending isn’t enough to keep me from whole-heartedly recommending The Fault in Our Stars.

The Fault in Our Stars is available at Amazon and in most local bookstores.

For more book reviews, read the Jan. 9 article, Book explores pet’s perspective.

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    Aaron DeWolfMar 22, 2012 at 12:04 am

    What a way to finish the season. Congrats to all the football players!

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