This is a depressing book that ponders big questions about how cancer is random, devastating, and can change lives. But it’s also hilarious. All the while it’s a charming romance swathed in dark humor with characters that were dying or are dying and worry about what their time spent on earth has meant and if they are going to be burdensome to those they leave behind. They want to be treated like normal teens and they wrestle with accepting or rejecting the perks that people have given them or the things that adults allow them to do because of their condition. Through snappy, intelligent, and sarcastic conversations, the main characters wonder about the afterlife, fall in love (and beautifully so), and discuss whether or not their lives should or should not mean something more or less just because they were unlucky enough to get cancer.
Does it mean anything? Am I angry or sad or both? Is it worth trying to make it count? How do we handle this? And then someone dies.
See what I meant when I said it was Heavy Stuff? But I loved it. And this is “Young Adult.”
All the while, it has some of the best-flowing, humorous dialogue (sometimes a little too much, in fact) and is minimally pretentious (which is a little John Green’s fault but also inherent to his designed characters I believe). I laughed out loud, cried a bit, and had moments where I needed to close the book, step away from it, and check my Facebook for ten minutes before continuing. It feels real and powerful, and it wasn’t a novel one should just slam through in one day (thought you could). John Green told his story in only as many pages as he needed—which I respect—which in this case is a just a touch over a modest 300 pages.
Some people will criticize that these teens are droppin’ lines that are too intelligent and witty unless they were twenty-seven years old. Well, no. Some kids are like this, and when you’re home schooled, or home a lot with cancer, I’d imagine that while some kids would just struggle everyday and be totally disinterested in delving into books, these characters clearly spent a lot of time online, in books, and reading about philosophical conundrums. Cancer is different for every person who has it, including the families, and the cancer itself can have many varieties. Just because a reader doesn’t know any teen who speaks this way does not mean that none do.
Some will say John Green is disingenuous or manipulative and will interpret the book as saying that the death of children and teens with cancer means more or should mean more, but I don’t think that’s what he is saying at all; furthermore, I find it presumptuous of readers to assume to know what Mr. Green was thinking while writing this. He crafted a book to entertain and move people. Make them think. It’s his job. He’s a freakin’ writer! The truth is that he left a lot up to the readers. Several ideas about love, youth, mortality, religion, and oblivion where discussed, and I think that some—not all—young people with cancer could relate to this book or at least have an opinion about it. People with and without cancer would find this one worth reading.
But again, this isn’t all about cancer either. The book is about how we all die. It’s true. So what are we going to do with it?
Some people have longer on this earth, but at what quality did you exist and enjoy it? Some lives can be just as grand in much less time, and if that’s all the time you have, it’s understandable advice that rather than wallow in it, which can be a choice for some and not for others, one should rather “seize the day.” There needs to be optimism in this meaningless suffering that we don’t understand, because life needs to be worth living. We are humans and that’s just instinctual.
Dissenters of the book will say:
“it’s so easy for a healthy person to expect someone with chronic health complications to find happiness in every moment. It’s much harder to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that sometimes there is no silver lining.”
Some readers will find this flippant of Green to write about, telling cancer kids to “find the silver lining.” Healthy or not, not everyone finds their purpose or their Great Romance. Okay. It’s not always there, sure, but it’s a brave novel doing many things that only a few readers will likely dissent over. This novel will pick up more people than put them down I would bet, with or without disease.
In closing, this is more than a cancer book. It’s a book about Great Love, young discovery, personal choice, and philosophy. It just happens to have main characters with cancer. Life is not easy, and clearly harder for some and sometimes unfair, but something here is worth fighting for and not giving up on.
That’s life. With or without cancer.
(This is a 2012 top 10 contender for me.)
p.s. his first book is supposed to be great, so this summer, I’m hittin’ up Looking For Alaska.