From 9/11 to kids with cancer

Advance apologies if my syntax and otherwise generally awesome writing skills are off today: I’m in Day 3 of Operation Don’t Be a Fatty, which is the code name I’ve given my 345th attempt to lose weight this year. Whilst daydreaming about bagels and buckets of cream cheese, I’m finding it harder than usual to sound insightful.

What does ODBAF entail, you ask? (Or didn’t ask, but it’s my blog and I do what I want.) Give or take a few other minor changes (like alternating sides of the couch so as to more evenly distribute my butt indent) it primarily involves a) going to the gym more than once a year b) eating less candy and c) not always choosing the gnocchi at Italian restaurants. Just sometimes.

Though this is, as I mentioned, the umpteenth time I’ve gone down this path, it is not without reason that I bring up my renewed interest in health here, on a blog ostensibly about books. After finishing The Fault in Our Stars over the weekend, which focuses primarily on the lives of two teenagers with cancer, I came into Monday feeling particularly shitty about my inability to take care of my perfectly functional 26-year-old body.

The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS, not to be confused with ODBAF, which I’ll be marketing as a patented weight loss formula shortly) is a young adult novel, which I’d like to think we’ve learned by now doesn’t preclude it from being awesome, or at least engrossing. The book is narrated by its 16-year-old protagonist, Hazel, who has thyroid cancer that has worked its way into her lungs, requiring her to carry an oxygen tank at all times because, as she puts it, her “lungs suck at being lungs.” One day at a cancer support group for kids (which she loathes) Hazel meets Augustus, whose only evidence of having survived bone cancer is his prosthetic leg. Equally intelligent, witty and jaded with the entire rigmarole of cancer and recovery, the two hit it off and ultimately fall in love.

Fortunately for my growling stomach, there’s no need for fancy language in describing TFIOS. It’s beautiful, point blank. By page two I knew I was in love with this book, by page 10 I was rereading paragraphs and by page 25 I was jotting down notes for this review. The novel is accessible and smart without being showy, believable and sad and so surprisingly funny that I’d have just recovered from crying when it would make me laugh, which was so unexpected that I’d start to cry all over again.

For the record, I just want to say that cancer is like, the worst. It is an insufferable motherfucker that touches way too many people and costs way too many lives. If cancer were a person, I’d punch it in the face.

Considering the magnitude of the topic, I wasn’t surprised at all the sad parts in TFIOS, and believe me there are many. After all, a terminal illness doesn’t only affect its victim, and trying to imagine what it must be like as a parent, to know your child will die before you do, was as heart-wrenching as Hazel’s own pain. That said, what I didn’t expect from TFIOS was everything else, in particular how uplifting the novel managed to be even as it was tragic. Do you guys remember that scene in Sex and the City when Samantha has breast cancer and while giving a speech at a fundraiser, she takes off her wig and then a bunch of other women do like it’s an I’m Spartacus of baldness or a happy version of that creepy scene in Witches? This whole book is kind of exactly like that.

In fact, Hazel almost single-handedly undoes whatever negative effects the Twilight series, and Bella in particular, may have had on my appreciation for young adult novels. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t love the Twilight books; I did, but for they are: indulgent, ludicrous, trashy. By contrast, where Bella is a wishy-washy blank slate with no discernible interests or personality to speak of, Hazel is a complete human being whoβ€”although she falls in love with Augustusβ€”very clearly exists outside of him. Moreover, this is not a plot of teen vampire abstinence or wars with supernatural governing bodies. TFIOS is about cancer, and is therefore as steeped in reality as Twilight is removed from it.

At the end of the day, the hallmarks of a good young adult novel are easy: a) teenagers falling in love and b) teenagers facing some sort of conflict that gets in the way of their falling in love. TFIOS, like Twilight and like The Hunger Games, has both of those things. But while TFIOS’s characters are fictional, its conflict isn’t. The day-to-day lives of kids with cancer are heartbreaking, which is why no one really talks about them; this book does it anyway, and well.


TITLE: The Fault in Our Stars
AUTHOR: John Green
PAGES: 313 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns
SORTA LIKE: Special Topics in Calamity Physics meets A Long Way Down
FIRST LINE: “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, primarily because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”

8 thoughts on “From 9/11 to kids with cancer”

  1. I’m tempted, but may have to wait until I can take another dose of “believable and sad” after seeing “Bully” the other day. Must have mindless escapist novel in between the heavy reading. And totally agree…. spend time around someone suffering from any life-altering or life-threatening illness and it does feel almost criminal to not take care of the health that we have.

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