My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I ignored this book when it came out five years ago, assuming it was nothing more than over-hyped, YA emotional death porn. Honestly, that’s what so much YA lit is these days. You have overwrought teenagers who are satirical and cynical, wise beyond their years. And there’s usually death, because what’s more Deeply Moving than teenagers struck down in the prime of their life, especially when they leave their One True Love behind. No, thank you. But about three months ago, I was researching the Harlem Renaissance for one of my online classes and ran across this fabulous YouTube series called Crash Course Literature. And suddenly here I was mesmerized by this goofy looking thirty-something guy giving these completely fabulous run downs of great literature. He throws in history, biography, some rudimentary but utterly insightful critical theory, and pretty much in the space of a ten minute video distills the book’s essence into this concentrated kernel of awesomeness that would inspire even the most jaded of high school kids to pick up and actually read the book. These videos actually pissed me off because they were so good. I’m sitting in front of my computer watching someone do what I do and they are doing it 10,000 times better and, yes, I’m inspired and awestruck, but at the same time just pissed at myself for sucking so hard. In short, his videos made me want to be a better teacher.
Anyway, somewhere in the course of me binge watching two and a half hours of YouTube videos, I notice that every once in a while he mentions that he’s an author, and that piques my interest and I Google him. And holy crap! He’s The Fault in Our Stars Guy. Dammit. Now I have to read it, and of course, it really is a good book. In fact, it’s great. Green takes the standard tropes of YA lit, but ends up writing this book that’s about existence and hope in the face of nihilism. This book made me cry, and not because of the star crossed cancer kids. It spoke to those moments when I’m laying in bed in the middle of the night, listening to my family breathing in our silent house and I feel the dark abyss of eternity pooling under me, pulling me down. In that moment I begin to panic and want to scream out (to borrow some language from the illustrious Mr. Green):”Notice me, Universe! Notice me! This life has to mean something.” And then there is silence…
So, yes, Hazel and Gus are just a little too witty at times, and, their Big Romance was a little too young-adulty (very similar to another YA emotional death porn book If I Stay). However, Green manages to transcend all that. First, his love of literature oozes off of the page with his allusions to Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, TS Eliot, and the Gospel of John. My favorite passage in this book is when Hazel is in excruciating pain, her head in her mom’s lap has her dad drives them to the hospital. As she’s trying to block out the pain, Hazel realizes that “The only solution was to try to unmake the world, to make it black and silent and uninhabited again, to return to the moment before the Big Bang, in the beginning when there was the Word, and to live in that vacuous uncreated space alone with the Word” (106). Here infinite nothingness is a welcome respite; it’s the blank space creation was spoken out of. Over the course of this book Gus and Hazel learn to stare into the abyss and to feel wonder that they even exist at all and in whatever capacity. They carve out this little eternity for themselves and fall inside of it. And it sucks and it’s painful, but in the end being alive is good, and that has to be enough.
There aren’t any easy answers in this book, no last minute miracles or eleventh hour redemptions. There’s no big lesson to learn from pain, from cancer, from death. To quote one of my desert island top five favorite movies, The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.” Indeed. But there is also joy and love and champagne and literature and sitting on the couch watching movies with your husband and when you think about it, that can be all the meaning that you need.