Earlier this spring, I joined a young adult book club. Based on the blog, Forever Young Adult (which isn’t one of my regular spots on the internet), I am thrilled to finally find some locals that also read young adult novels.
At my very first meeting, several members raved about the books of John Green, someone who I had heard of but not read. For the next month, the book was The Fault in Our Stars. I didn’t know much about it–kids with cancer was really all I needed to know. It was getting great reviews, but it wasn’t super high on my to-read list. Sometimes, a girl needs fluff in her books and kids with cancer didn’t strike me as fluffy.
But like any good book club member, I bought it. And then I devoured it. It has been a very, very long time since I’ve read an entire book in one day. As workmen replaced the carpet in my home, I sat on the back patio and sniffled my way through. I really, really loved it and instantly became a huge fan of John Green. It is quite possibly one of the best books I’ve read this year. So many wonderful moments that shoot straight to heart with wisdom and grace and humor. Like this:
“Without pain, how could we know joy?’ This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.”
Or this (which totally illustrates the dark humor of this book, which is part of what makes it not like most books about sick kids):
“It’s just that most really good-looking people are stupid, so I exceed expectations.’
‘Right, it’s primarily his hotness,’ I said.
‘It can be sort of blinding,’ he said.
‘It actually did blind our friend Isaac,’ I said.
‘Terrible tragedy, that. But can I help my own deadly beauty?’
‘It is my burden, this beautiful face.’
‘Not to mention your body.’
‘Seriously, don’t even get me started on my hot bod. You don’t want to see me naked, Dave. Seeing me naked actually took Hazel Grace’s breath away,’ he said, nodding toward the oxygen tank.”
When we discussed the book, one of the discussion questions was about how these characters compared to other fictional characters with cancer. Part of the reason why I loved this book so much was because the characters were complicated–they were teenagers first. You completely fall in love with Hazel and Gus. Hazel’s parents are amazing. There were no saintly folks, but real people struggling with all the emotions that come with a life-threatening illness. I found myself talking about Susan Sontag’s book Illness as Metaphor and the literary types associated with consumption and how she brought that comparison forward with a discussion of AIDS. And that maybe, just maybe, John Green was breaking cancer literary stereotypes with this book. All of a sudden, my full history nerdiness was on display. I shut up. After all, these people didn’t really know me and should I really be going on about 19th century literary stereotypes of consumption?
Then, we watched the DVD extras that go with the audio book. It was a series of short videos of John Green talking about the book. One of those was titled “The Hectic Glow,” and suddenly John Green was talking about literary types and consumption. It took all of my energy not to literally smack my forehead. Everyone turned to me in disbelief. Apparently my history lesson wasn’t completely off-topic. Though they were pretty impressed with me, I felt a faint hectic flush glow on my cheeks. You see, “The Hectic Glow” is the name of Gus and Hazel’s favorite band. And I had COMPLETELY MISSED THE REFERENCE.
This is even more embarrassing when you consider that my one serious publication on the topic of kidlit history is entitled “The Hectic Flush: The Fiction and Reality of Consumption in L. M. Montgomery’s Life.” My only defense, and it is a weak one, is that I read The Fault in Our Stars so quickly that the reference just flew over my head.
Even though I missed this rather obvious homage to Green’s literary predecessors, the experience was a lovely reminder that being familiar with older classics can make modern novels richer. Hazel and Gus are only the most recent in a long line of fictional characters dealing with serious illness or disability: Beth March, Mary Ingalls, Pollyanna and anyone in a book by Lurlene McDaniel. In most cases, these characters are far too good and sweet to feel real. Hazel and Gus are like a breath of fresh air with their sarcasm, confusion, and anger. I don’t think I would have loved Hazel and Gus as much if I wasn’t so familiar with the saintly characteristics of most ill characters in fiction for children.
Now, the chances of today’s teens catching the “hectic glow” reference are pretty small. But maybe, just maybe these teens read Anne of the Island and remember Ruby Gillis’ death. And maybe, just maybe they remember they’ll remember this description of Ruby:
“She was even handsomer than ever; but her blue eyes were too bright and lustrous, and the color of her cheeks was hectically brilliant.”
And they’ll feel totally cool because they got John Green’s little nod to other fictional characters living under the shadow of death. I just felt like a complete idiot.