At the end of the first chapter of The Fault in Our Stars, I was literally laughing out loud over a joke about the "incorrect use of literality," shared between two cancer kids one terminal, one in remission shortly after a scene in which the two bond over one's philosophical answer to the other's stated "fear of oblivion" and both learn that a third friend is about to lose a second eye to cancer.
Hazel Lancaster, sixteen, has incurable thyroid cancer, with an "impressive and long-settled colony" of cancer cells in her lungs, but to Augustus Waters mahogany hair, "aggressively bad posture," and a slight limp from a prosthetic leg nicknamed Prosty she looks like "a millennial Natalie Portman." But what really brings them together is a joke about their Support Group director's well-intentioned prayer in which he describes the cancer-ridden children as "literally in the heart of Jesus."
"I thought we were in a church basement," says Augustus. "But we are literally in the heart of Jesus."
"Someone should tell Jesus," says Hazel. "I mean, it's got to be dangerous, storing children with cancer in your heart."
Three years (and one near-death experience) removed from high school, Hazel knows she will die soon, and this certainty has shrunk her world to her three best friends: her two parents and Peter van Houten, the reclusive author of her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction. To do otherwise, she feels, is to become a human "grenade" the fewer people who love her now, the fewer lives she will shatter when she inevitably goes. But Augustus has other ideas, and soon the two are on an international quest to Amsterdam oxygen tank, Prosty, and parental chaperon in tow to meet van Houten himself.
Hazel's beguiling voice is utterly believable as a thoughtful, prematurely somber teenager who borrows from Shakespeare, Eliot, Dickinson, Anne Frank, and the fictional van Houten in telling the story of a romance of "the young and irreparably broken." But it's the crackling humor between the two lovers that makes them most human. "You have a choice in this world," says Hazel, "about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice." This book, already a bestseller, is every bit as good as its reputation and easily one of the best of this or any other year.
Amy Benfer has worked as an editor and staff writer at Salon, Legal Affairs, and Paper magazine. Her reviews and features on books have appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Believer, Kirkus Reviews, and The New York Times Book Review.
Reviewer: Amy Benfer