When you are dying of cancer, the question of what, really, is the point of living, becomes pressing. John Green has written a really good book about that dilemma. It is called The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel Grace Lancaster, the protagonist, is probably dying of cancer. Certainly, she is living with cancer. She sees herself mostly as one of the side effects of the cancer she has.
That is what she needs to get over. The cancer will do what it will do, but she needs to get over seeing herself as one of its side effects. The paths she follows in getting over it is what the book is really about. Two are central to this story. The first is that Hazel Grace’s parents are bound tightly to her cancer. If Hazel’s life is an expression of her illness, then her parents’ lives are an expression of the expression of Hazel’s illness. They are, as Hazel sees them, “parents of a cancer kid.” Not more; not other. They orbit Hazel’s illness like satellites.
The second is an extraordinary love affair with Augustus Waters, another cancer kid. Those two sets of relationships twine around each other like DNA and give palpable life to the narrative . The relationship with the parents is the more complicated one, so I am going to deal with Augustus first. His relationship with Hazel has all the advantages of being a love story and we already know how to do those.
Augustus is, as I said, a “cancer kid” like Hazel Grace except he is unlike her in one very important respect: dying of cancer –or whatever he is doing—doesn’t seem to take all his time. He believes, mistakenly as it turns out, that his cancer is a part of his past. He had to give up a leg to get rid of the cancer, he thinks, but now he is rid of it. But that’s not really the amazing thing about Augustus. The amazing thing is that he would use all the energy he has to live as fully as he can and, from the time he meets Hazel Grace, in Chapter 1, that means using energy to be with her.
Finding herself attractive to a genuinely hot boy like Gus brings Hazel Grace out of the funk she is in when we meet her. If you have even a little extra oxygen, it is fun to use it flirting with a boy you like and admire and who is flirting with you almost full time. But Hazel Grace moves out of the funk phase into “the grenade phase,” which, as you will readily imagine, is a lot more volatile.
The grenade metaphor captures her sense that she is going to “blow up” and she will cause awful and useless damage to anyone she is with. As she sees it, her parents and her boyfriend will be exit wounds and very little more. The reality of her situation is that her parents want to be with her and so does August Waters. The answer to the question, “So…now what?” is the plot of this book.
Here’s an early introduction to Hazel. On the night she meets Gus, she goes to his house to watch a movie. Gus’s mother invites her to stay for dinner. Hazels responds:
“I guess?” I said. “I have to be home by ten. Also I don’t, um, eat meat?”
“No problem. We’ll vegetarianize some,” she said.
“Animals are just too cute?” Gus asked.
“I want to minimize the number of deaths I am responsible for,” I said.
That’s a byproduct of the cancer, as is nearly everything else in her life. “Minimize the deaths I am responsible for” is her generalized way of dealing with her parents and her former classmates. The classmates, Hazel says, “wanted to help me through my cancer, but they eventually found out that they couldn’t. For one thing, there was no through.”
That’s the problem with cancer. There is no through. She continues to relate to Gus’s friend, Isaac. Isaac had a super-hot girlfriend, Monica, but when they took Isaac’s second eye, leaving him totally blind, Monica dropped him. Hazel doesn’t have any trouble relating to the kids she knows who are dying of cancer. Here are Hazel and Isaac.
“Support Group Hazel not Monica,” I said when he got close enough, and he smiled and said, “Hey, Hazel. How’s it going?”
“Good. I’ve gotten really hot since you went blind.”
On the other hand, she and Gus both know that there is an insistent stereotyping of kids who are dying of cancer. Notice all the capital letters.
Gus: “The thing about dead people,” he said, and then stopped himself. “The thing is you sound like a bastard if you don’t romanticize them, but the truth is complicated, I guess. Like, you are familiar 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?”
Hazel: “Indeed,” I said. “They are kindhearted and generous souls whose every breath is an Inspiration to Us All. They’re so strong! We admire them so!”
Hazel gets beyond her fears of being a “grenade.” Oddly, it’s easier with Augustus than it is with her parents. August is hot and he loves Hazel. That makes everything easier. And he is not persistently misrepresenting himself to her (as her parents are) and that makes things easier too.
Gus does not die without arranging an early funeral—one that he gets to attend. It is at this service that Hazel gets to say what she wants to say about the relationship.
“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.
At the public funeral, she puts it differently. Had Gus been there, he and Hazel would have caught each other’s eye and stifled smiles. But Gus is gone and Hazel has begun to understand something about funerals.
“There’s a great quote in Gus’s house, one that both he and I found very comforting: Without pain, we couldn’t know joy.” 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.”
I think that’s a great place to end the Augustus and Hazel Grace part of the story. Notice that she was willing to “go on spouting bullshit Encouragements” at the public funeral—not the one Gus planned for himself, but the one Gus’s parents planned for him. And the reason? Funerals are for the living. Hazel is not willing to superimpose on the funeral Gus’s parents planned, the wary irony that has sustained her sickness-dominated life. The bullshit she offers is her gift to Gus’s parents; the only thing she can still do for Gus. Gus would understand perfectly and would applaud her.
Hazel and her parents are a tougher problem. Hazel and Gus understood their illnesses in a similar way and tried not to deceive each other. That’s not the case with Hazel and her parents. The parents’ job is exhausting and difficult. They need to make it seem that nothing in their lives is more important that maintaining their daughter’s access to oxygen and, when necessary, getting the fluid pumped out of her lungs so she can breathe. And, simultaneously, to find a way to keep off of their daughter the pressure that their perpetual martyrdom applies. “You are all that makes our lives worth living, sweetheart, but please don’t allow the pressure of that sacrifice to distort your life.” Right! Good luck with that. Here, by the way is Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother–one of the highlights of the movie version.
Here is a small piece of the dilemma in Hazel’s voice:
It occurred to me that the reason my parents had no money was me. I’d sapped the family savings with Phalanxifor copays, and Mom couldn’t work because she had taken on the full-time profession of Hovering Over Me. I didn’t want to put them even further into debt.
But even this works its way out. This is what that looks like.
“I want you guys to have a life,” I said. “I worry that you won’t have a life, that you’ll sit around here all day with no me to look after and stare at the walls and want to off yourselves.”
After a minute, Mom said, “I’m taking some classes. Online, through IU. To get my master’s in social work. In fact, I wasn’t looking at antioxidant recipes; I was writing a paper.”
“I don’t want you to think I’m imagining a world without you. But if I get my MSW, I can counsel families in crisis or lead groups dealing with illness in their families or—”
“No, this is great. This is fantastic!” I was really smiling.
It took some digging and some anger and tears to get down to the place where these few things could be said, but when they all got there. “I don’t want you to think I am imagining a world without you. But…I’m taking some classes…to get my master’s in social work.”
Hazel’s response is completely wholehearted. She wishes them a whole and healthy life after she has died and they are willing to accept the gift. Hazel is not, here, the “cancer kid, “whose every breath is an Inspiration to Us All.” Those capitals represent the irony that she and Augustus practiced. And her parents are not the parents of Hazel’s nightmare, having “taken on the full-time profession of Hovering Over Me.” The capitals again.
Not anymore. The parents have moved on. The daughter has granted them the right to stop Hovering Over Her and they have accepted with gratitude. She’s still going to die, but she made sure to take this time to live. Good for you, Hazel Grace.
 I regret to say that there is a movie version, which is really very little more than a teenage romance between kids who are dying of cancer.
 “Encouragements” is capitalized because there are lots up uplifting sayings at Gus’s house and his mother calls them “Encouragements” with a capital E-.