It took me a while to formulate my thoughts on this book, but I think I’ve finally settled my opinion. First, I have to say, this is not a book I would normally pick up, but because of all the accolades it has acquired over the last few years, I decided I should give it a fair shot. With so much hype, it had to be worth reading. I should’ve known better. I’ve learned that usually the more hype something gets the less I like it. I’m not sure why – maybe I’m just too contrary.
I know most people will disagree with this review, but I’ll try to be objective and respectful. If you liked this book, I am not in any way attacking you, just stating my own reading experience. I’ve never had cancer, or been very close to someone who has, so I can’t pretend to know how accurate that side of things is. Also, I am not an atheist, agnostic, or nihilist – I am a Christian and I cannot separate my worldview from my opinions on books. And just a warning – I can’t write this review spoiler-free, and there are spoilers. If you want to remain blissfully ignorant of any twists or surprises until you read it yourself, do not read this review. I'm afraid this one is a little bit lengthy, but I wanted to be sure to be fair and precise with my criticism.
I can’t say I hated this book. But I can’t say I liked it a whole lot either. Generally, if I really like a book, I would read it again, and this one I don’t think I would. It was okay, at best. My feelings about the story itself are actually pretty much neutral. There were parts I enjoyed and things I liked about it, but the plot left me kind of shrugging my shoulders, and feeling like I could take it or leave it, and the overall book made me want to just ‘leave it.’
I think the reason it left me so flat is that if you just look at the plot, there’s not much to it. It all boils down to this (again, spoiler alert – TURN BACK NOW): two cancer-stricken teens meet, bond over a novel and shared experiences, fall in love, meet the novel’s author, find out he’s a jerk, one of them dies, and the other is dying. Now this simple of a plot line might have worked if the characters were meatier, but again, there’s not much to them. Both characters seem pretty shallow and thin.
Hazel, sixteen, has had terminal cancer since she was 13. She’s bright and witty, a bit narcissistic, but there’s not much to her other than her cancer. She quotes poetry and loves a certain novel yes, but other than that I never really felt like I knew her. Throughout the entire book she as a character is only defined by her cancer. She admits that she is “mostly a professional sick person.” She says she worries that when she dies “they’d have nothing to say about me except that I fought heroically, as if the only thing I’d ever done was Have Cancer.” I can’t say whether or not this really is what happens when a teen has been terminal for so many years. Maybe it is. But from a reader’s standpoint it was very sad to have a character so reduced.
Augustus wasn’t any better. He’s kind and supportive, but again I never felt like I knew anything about him before he met Hazel. His character’s essence was totally wrapped up in being Hazel’s boyfriend, finding the author of the novel they love so much, and Having Cancer. At seventeen, he has lost a leg to the cancer and seems to be cancer-free. But when it comes roaring back he dies a slow and painful death.
There were two things I did actually love about this book. The first, being their conversations. Some critics have ridiculed them, the most common argument being, “Teenagers don’t talk like that.” I beg to differ. Maybe it’s just my family and friends, but we have all sorts of debates and monologues running the gamut from theology and philosophy to properties of biological EMF fields and the nature of dimensionality. And yes, even dorky conversations like Hazel’s “why are scrambled eggs inherently breakfast food?” And people of all ages join in these discussions. So I was insulted by the remark “teenagers don’t talk like that.” Maybe some don’t, but not all of us are alike. We come from many different walks of life, and we all have different views. I happened to enjoy their discussions and philosophical debates, even if I didn’t really agree with most of them. Even the ones that seemed a bit pretentious I still found interesting, and at worst I laughed and moved on.
And the second was the picture of friendship John Green laid out between Hazel, Augustus, and Isaac, a secondary character. I love how anytime one of them is going through something, one or both of the others is right there for them. They’re not afraid to ask one of the others to come help them through a battle, and neither are they afraid to simply say, “I’m coming over.” It was a really good example of friendship and love in hard times.
But as if to make up for this wonderful friendship, Hazel’s relationship with her parents is sadly lacking. She puts distance between herself and them, fights with them, and says cutting things to her mother. Now I understand having a terminal disease would put a stress on a relationship, and that there might be tense times and arguments even. But in my mind, I would be clinging closer to anyone I loved and who loved me, seeking comfort. Even that though, wasn’t what bothered me most.
The hardest thing for me to get past was the worldview presented in this book. There is a constant spirit of hopelessness and nihilism. Nihilism, not in the sense of “there is no right or wrong,” but as my dictionary put it, “belief that nothing is worthwhile: a belief that life is pointless and human values are worthless.” Hazel presents this point of view fiercely, stating that, “Forever is an incorrect concept.” She makes it clear she doesn’t think there is an afterlife, even if she can’t say it absolutely. And towards the beginning, she has this cheery little monologue in response to Augustus’ fear of oblivion:
“There will come a time…when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this…will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”
And this worldview pervades the entire book. Augustus is a little more optimistic, saying he believes in “capital-S Something” after life. Hazel’s father says he believes “the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness…And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it – or my observation of it – is temporary?”
At the end of the book one of the characters dies. I’d had it spoiled before I ever started this book, so I knew it was coming. It still made me cry, but not for the reason character deaths usually do. Where a character’s death often leaves me admiring a heroic act of self-sacrifice or mourning the tragedy of war or sickness, etc., this death seemed empty and like sheer emotional blackmail, the author’s attempt at making you accept a mediocre book as a great one. Green stuck the knife in and dug and dug, until I just wanted the death to be over already. I like character deaths. I think they can be used brilliantly. But this just came across as a useless, cheap trick.
It continued hopeless and empty till the very end. The only positive message I came away with was in Augustus’ letter at the close of the book. “Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world…The marks humans leave are too often scars…People will says it’s sad that [Hazel] leaves a lesser scar…But it’s not sad…It’s triumphant. It’s heroic. Isn’t that the real heroism? Like the doctors say: First do no harm.”
Sometimes it’s better not to leave a mark, if that mark is a scar. Often the real heroes aren’t the great figures, the doers, and the fighters, but the ones that chose a quieter life, a small place, and put others first. In the end, that’s the most important mark we leave – how did we touch those around us? Not “what great thing did we do?” But “did we take care of loved ones? Did we leave scars? Or did we leave peace and sweet memories?”
I judge books by how they stick with me, as well as how it was while I was reading it. And this one just kept falling flatter and flatter the more I thought about it. TFIOS was a one-time read that I needed to complete just so I could know my opinion in a society that is rather obsessed with this story. It was a sweet story of friendship and love, with a depressing worldview. I can’t say I would reread this book. But neither do I regret reading it.