I’ve been meaning to read this one for awhile. As for why, I’ll give you some background on the book: On goodreads.com (a good site), it is one of the highest rated book on goodreads, with an absurd 4.49 or something out of 5. John Green, the author, is an Edgar (mystery genre) award winner known for his superb prose. In several reader polls I’ve seen including, I believe, NPR, it’s consistently won the award for best teen/young adult novel of ALL TIME, and usually in a landslide. It’s about to be made into a movie. And, finally, it’s about cancer. Basically, the book is supposed to be a Book Thief level masterpiece of fiction, so naturally I have to read it.
Well, I started. I was amazed. I had to skip ahead, read other scenes to figure out if things stayed at that quality, and they did. And you know what?
This book is AWFUL.
Here’s the plot: Hazel has cancer. She meets Augustus, who has cancer. Augustus’s personality is perfect in every way, plus he’s hot, so naturally he falls in love with her almost literally at first sight. Wacky but very sad (because CANCER) hi-jinks ensue as a result!
The first problem is that Hazel is one of the most unlikeable protagonists I’ve ever read. What I gather is that we’re supposed to like her because she has cancer and is considerate to her parents. That’s great. It’s unfortunate that she acts like a massive piece of shit to the rest of the world, then.
Hazel is at a cancer kids support group meeting at a local Church. We’re introduced to the counselor in charge through the many, many times Hazel talks about how he lost his balls to testicular cancer, and now has a miserable life. This is a real hang up for her. He doesn’t JUST lead a miserable life, he’s also ball-less. She spends quite a lot of time contemplating this, because apparently being amused at people’s testicular cancer behind their back is ripe material for black comedy. Oh, wait, Hazel has cancer herself, so it’s okay for her to be an asshole.
Then Augustus was introduced. I wish I had the book in front of me so I could quote it (I don’t keep the book at home), but Hazel ACTUALLY SAYS that when Augustus stares at her it’s really great because he’s hot, but if an ugly guy stared at her it would be creepy. At first I was going to give her props for being honest, then I realized that all she did was ADMIT that she acted like a bitch towards people she wasn’t attracted to. So sorry Hazel, no props for you.
Augustus and Hazel talk like medieval philosophers, or possibly Shakespearean actors. When Augustus is asked what he fears most he answers “Oblivion”. I shit you not, oblivion. Hazel ups the ante by responding with a long, complex speech essentially about how we’re all going to die anyway so really why be afraid of it? Apparently, cancer not only kills you, but also turns teenagers into brilliant philosophers. Brilliant, really depressing philosophers.
After this little scene Hazel goes up to Augustus and asks him why he was staring, in an insanely obvious attempt to fish for compliments. Augustus says he thought she was hot. Hazels says she’s turned on. THIS IS THE MAGIC OF AUGUSTUS, PEOPLE.
Right from the start, I immediately knew Augustus was going to die. He had to. He was too perfect. Finny can’t live in “A Separate Peace”, Augustus can’t live in this book. And – SPOILER – guess what? I was, of course, right. This is very sad, because their love is pure and true and beautiful. And why? Who knows! Hazel finds Augustus hot and in general is just in awe of the fact that he likes her. Augustus really likes Hazel and is handsome and smart and funny.
So I was in awe at how much I hated Hazel and how annoyingly pretentious the dialogue was, so I skipped around to different scenes to see if things changed. Nope – it gets worse. Hazel and Augustus continually exchange “witty repartee”, which, thanks to the way they spoke more or less resembled the banter in Shakespearean comedies, but not as good. At one point, Augustus actually starts a soliloquy. As in, that was his term for it. It reads as ridiculous as you would think.
Hazel, meanwhile, is still a shit. When she meets other boys she always makes sure to mentally compare their hotness to Augustus’s, in order to ascertain that her boyfriend “wins” – another fun example of Hazel being a colossal dickhead to boys she doesn’t like. Her internal monologue consists mostly of her enthusing about how absolutely incredible and gorgeous Augustus is, and near the end it’s mostly her complaining because Augustus is dying. Which, hey, admittedly is a horrible thing to go through, but Hazel is so unlikeable and Augustus so unbelievable that the impact is weaker than it should be. Plus, the fact that I knew Augustus was going to die from literally reading about the plot on the book jacket also dulled the impact a bit. Her dialogue, like Augustus’s, often includes long, poetic monologues about the meaning of life, pretty much like the dialogue of all actual cancer patients. This, of course, is in between the faux-Shakespearean witty repartee, which as everybody knows is how teenagers of all walks of life regularly communicate to each other.
Basically, we’re supposed to excuse all of the ways Hazel acts like a shit because she has cancer. This is apparently supposed to give her some sort of immunity from criticism. And while I have not read it I will assume that the total perfectness of Augustus will drag her out of her depression and cause her to be less nasty by the end of the novel, which would be a lovely character arc if Augustus was in any way a realistic character.
The good points – he writes pretty prose. That’s pretty much all I have for you, but to be fair it’s a rare skill/talent, so some genuine props for that.
I’m going to finish the book. How can I not? It’s unfair of me to leave this as the last note when I couldn’t even make it through the first chapter. John Green deserves at least a little more respect than that. But, my initial recommendation: Don’t buy the hype. It’s terrible.
If you want a good young adult novel about cancer try “Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie”. The book is quite formulaic and is meant more for middle school readers than teenagers, but the dialogue is believable and Sonnenblick (the author) is actually really, really funny without making fun of people’s testicular cancer. The main character starts out as a jerk but his character arc, while helped along by others, is a result of his own self-reflection rather than the remarkable influence of the most perfectest person ever. The book has some really touching moments. You’ll often see it high up on “best ever young adult novel” lists as well. Highly, highly recommended.
One final note – Because Green is good at writing prose and Zusak is also good at writing prose this book is often compared to “The Book Thief”. I’ll tell you the major differences, then. “The Book Thief” has much better dialogue, multidimensional characters, takes on subject matter just as serious but using a much riskier narrative conceit, and, sorry Green fans, but less pretentious prose. Yes, that’s right, a book narrated by Death itself is less pretentious than “The Fault in Our Stars”. This is mostly because Death has his own narrative voice separate from the characters, and thus the characters all have their own speaking styles instead of just all being professional poets. So if you hear anybody compare the two, don’t be afraid – “The Book Thief” is the far better novel.
It’s such a shame, because I was truly prepared for this, like “The Book Thief”, to blow me away and become one of my favorite books.
Initial thoughts: Thumbs WAY down. More to come later.