by Natalie Standiford, originally published by the New York Times, 13 January 2012
“I am not a mathematician, but I know this,” says Hazel Grace Lancaster, the narrator of “The Fault in Our Stars,” the latest novel by John Green, a Michael L. Printz medalist and author of several best-selling novels for young adults. “There are infinite numbers between zero and one. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others.” The trouble, she says, is, “I want more numbers than I’m likely to get.”
This is a problem faced by the heroines in both “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Probability of Miracles,” two young adult novels about 16-year-old girls who have cancer: their days are numbered. At the outset, the two books are remarkably similar. Both begin by bluntly describing the harsh realities of life as a cancer patient through the wry sensibility of a smart, sarcastic teenage girl. They are both surprisingly funny and entertaining, given the subject matter, and both are at heart teenage love stories. About halfway through, though, “The Probability of Miracles” veers off in one direction — toward the miracles of the title — while “The Fault in Our Stars” stays the course of tragic realism. And that’s where the difference lies.
Campbell Cooper, the heroine of Wendy Wunder’s first novel, is a child of Disney World: her parents were both fire dancers in the “Spirit of Aloha” show at the Polynesian Hotel. Growing up in a manufactured fantasy world has made Cam understandably cynical. When her doctor reports that her cancer has spread and medical science has done all it can, Cam resigns herself to dying.
Then she comes across a “Flamingo List” she made a year earlier, a list of everything she wants to do before she dies, things she imagines to be part of a normal adolescence, like “Lose my virginity at a keg party,” “Kill my little sister’s dreams” and “Experiment with petty shoplifting.” It’s time to start crossing things off the Flamingo List, and so she starts with the easiest one: shoplifting.
Cam has accepted that she’s going to die. But her mother and little sister want her to keep fighting, to believe in miracles. Hoping Cam will learn to “trust how the universe unfolds,” her mother insists on a road trip to Promise, Me., a mystical town known for its healing powers.
Promise, a sparkling New England village, is as much of a fantasy — if a less plasticized version — as the world Cam left behind in Florida. Upon their arrival, a handsome boy named Asher invites her and her family to stay in his gorgeous mansion overlooking the ocean. And though Cam resists the idea, Promise does appear to be full of miracles. The sunsets last for hours. Orcas improbably leap out of the bay in the evening. There are purple dandelions, a rainbow at night, snow in July and an unlikely flock of flamingoes. And Cam feels better. She can eat again; she has energy. Though she is “hope-resistant,” that begins to change.
Cam has setbacks, but eventually she succumbs to the spell of Promise and Asher, a hunky football star who reads James Joyce for fun. Even Cam says, “A person can be too perfect, you know.” By the end of the summer, she has crossed everything off her Flamingo List. Meanwhile, her sarcasm has lost its edge, and alas, so has the book. When Cam’s story, which starts out so gritty and real, devolves into fantasy, the sense of what dying young of cancer is really like is lost.
The grim reality is always present, however, in Hazel Lancaster, the heroine of “The Fault in Our Stars,” who narrates her story in a hip, angry, funny tone similar to Cam’s. Hazel has thyroid cancer that has spread calamitously to her lungs when she meets Augustus Waters, a former basketball player who has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, at a support group for cancer kids in Indianapolis. Augustus lends Hazel his favorite book, “The Price of Dawn,” the “brilliant and haunting novelization of my favorite video game,” so she lends him hers: “An Imperial Affliction” by Peter Van Houten, about a girl who has cancer. Van Houten ends his novel abruptly in the middle of a sentence, and Hazel is obsessed with finding out what happened to the characters. Augustus, too, becomes riveted by “An Imperial Affliction,” and uses his “wish” from “The Genie Foundation,” an organization devoted to the cheering up of sick children, to send himself and Hazel to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten.
At first Augustus, like Asher, seems too good to be true. He’s sexy and smart, and he appears to want nothing more than to do nice things for Hazel. But we come to understand how Gus’s illness has forced him to confront the big questions of life and death. Over the course of the narrative, his appealing exterior breaks down; his flaws, fears and humiliations are exposed, yet he is all the more lovable for his frailty and heartbreaking humanity.
Like “The Probability of Miracles,” this is a love story, but it is also a book by John Green, author of “Looking for Alaska” and “Paper Towns,” and it is written in his signature tone, a blend of melancholy, sweet, philosophical and funny. When Hazel decides to give away her childhood swing set because the sight of it depresses her, she considers this headline for the Craigslist ad: “Lonely, Vaguely Pedophilic Swing Set Seeks the Butts of Children.” Green’s characters may be improbably witty, but even under the direst circumstances they are the kind of people you wish you knew.
If the story takes a grimmer turn than that of “The Probability of Miracles,” the characters compel the reader to stick with them. “The Fault in Our Stars” is all the more heart-rending for its bluntness about the medical realities of cancer. There are harrowing descriptions of pain, shame, anger and bodily fluids of every type. It is a narrative without rainbows or flamingoes; there are no magical summer snowstorms. Instead, Hazel has to lug a portable oxygen tank with her wherever she goes, and Gus has a prosthetic leg. Their friend Isaac is missing an eye and later goes blind. These unpleasant details do nothing to diminish the romance; in Green’s hands, they only make it more moving. He shows us true love — two teenagers helping and accepting each other through the most humiliating physical and emotional ordeals — and it is far more romantic than any sunset on the beach.
As Hazel and Gus often remind each other, the world is not a wish-granting factory. Nevertheless, “a forever within the numbered days” can be found, and as Hazel shows us, maybe that’s all we can ask for.