1. The book is better than the movie. (As if anything else was possible.)
2. Hazel Grace and Augustus are stellar character names
John Green had me at Hazel and Augustus. (Okay, so I’m a name freak.) I honestly think these honest, real-as-flesh-and-blood characters would not have popped off the page so vividly had their names been plucked off the Top Ten list with no thought, no heart. When it comes to character naming: no guts, no glory.
3. My 13-year-old son read it first, and I wish he hadn’t.
Usually, I’m tuned in with what he’s reading and I often read along with him. Harry Potter, the Hunger Games etc. I bought TFIOS used, only having the vaguest impressions about it, that it was YA and about teenagers with cancer. I didn’t know there were some scenes and situations in the book that might make him uncomfortable. Still, he’s an old soul (he took an internet quiz and his real age is 37!), and the book led to some good conversations about love, death, the afterlife, and teen sexuality. Do I wish he was a bit older when he read it? Yes. But I’m glad we could “go there” together and talk openly about important topics.
4. John Green is a writer who amazes
Now, I hate the word “amazing,” which ranks right up there with “impact” and “no worries” as the most overused words in our language. Yes, I have slipped into using “amazing” to describe all kinds of things (cheese, an episode of “Parenthood,” and a friend’s new haircut, for example) that have not technically amazed me. But John Green’s writing does amaze me, at least in TFIOS. I laughed out loud a bunch of times, and I cried out loud too, ugly, snotty, hiccup-y crying. I marveled at his scrumptious word choices and delectable phrases. Mostly, I just thought about Hazel and Gus, and Hazel’s mom, and Isaac, and Peter Van Houten all the time. I thought about what they were going through and how I would have faced the same ordeals. I thought about death, and life, and dying, and Heaven, and the exquisite beauty of young love. When you think about all the things that compete for our attention, to be in the thrall of a writer’s gifts is truly, technically, amazing.
5. But still, did he have to kill my beloved Gus first?
When I read Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper,” I was boiling, stomping mad. I felt it was manipulative to suggest, strongly, that one character would be dying, and then at the very end, to pull a fast one and kill off another character. I’m all for plot twists, and telling stories close to the bone, but in the case of “My Sister’s Keeper,” it felt like I was the puppet and Picoult was the puppet master, jerking my emotions in a way that felt scheming. Could Green have told the story as well without The Gus Twist? It’s a fair question.
6. Everyone in the theater was sniffling, or at least “watery-eyed,” including my husband, who is a rugged, outdoorsy sort of man who wears flannel and longs to live off the land.“That,” he said, after the movie was over, and rows of red-eyed teenagers filed past us in weepy gaggles of misery, “was unmitigated brutality.” He then admitted to watery eyes. This tells me that it’s possible for almost anyone to cry at this movie.
7. The movie is good/bad viewing for anyone who has lost someone to cancer (and possibly other decimating diseases).
Cancer just absolutely sucks the scum at the bottom of the pond. I’ve been through four episodes in my life when the cruelties of cancer eroded my loved ones. In watching (and reading about) Hazel’s mother (played with realism and guts by Laura Dern), I was reminded of how much courage is required to watch someone you love slowly ebb away. For some who have sat by their beloveds, TFIOS may be too hard to take. For others, like me, it could also be therapeutic and cathartic. Either way is okay.
8. Gus and Hazel both had good parents
I was impressed with the courage of both sets of parents, and how they didn’t check out in the face of terrifying circumstances. Neither did Hazel’s parents shy away from the frightening conversations of what was coming down the road. My dear childhood best friend, Lori, died at age 31, after facing six bouts of a rare soft tissue cancer. Her mother (my second mother as a kid) couldn’t talk about Lori dying, right up to her death. For thirteen years, they never had that conversation. But what a gift for Hazel’s parents to talk openly about how hard it would be to lose her, and then reassure her that they would be okay after her death.
9. Did Patrick, the support group counselor, have to be such a loser?
Some of the most hilarious parts of the book are Hazel and Gus poking fun at poor Patrick, who liked to go on and on about losing a set of appendages very near and dear to him. On one level it’s funny, but on another, it’s just sad that the one firm Christian in the story is so regrettably loser-ish. I would have liked to see him have more dignity. He does, after all, lose everything (including his marriage and career) to cancer, and still musters the courage to devote himself to cancer-stricken teenagers.
10. I wish John Green had included even two-three sentences on the hope of Heaven
I’m all for artful storytelling that doesn’t tie everything up in a Big Fat Evangelical bow. And I’m all for telling stories about characters who may have opposing world views to the storyteller. But I wish a writer with Green’s powers would’ve lined the tragedy, not just with comedy and gusto for life, but with real hope and the conversation about the possibility of Heaven. After all, Green himself is a man of faith who presumably believes in Heaven himself. I find it curious that he would cut off the discussion with a dismissive “Heaven doesn’t probably exist” line of thinking. Yeah, obviously, having co-written a book about Heaven, I’m a booster! Not that Heaven needs me to boost it… But Green could have been so artful, so honest in his explorations of the afterlife; instead, he just slammed the door with “This is all we get.” Weird. I don’t have his gifts, but if I had written Hazel and Gus into being, I would have had them talk about what would happen after their lives ended.
Would they both be going, or just one of them?
If not Heaven, where to?
What would it be like there?
Were they afraid of the afterlife?
Not every dying person wants to have these conversations. But Hazel and Gus seem so gut-honest about everything, I believe they would have.
I wanted to scream at them through the rabbit hole of story.
“Hazel Grace! Augustus! There’s so much more out there! This isn’t all we get! You’ll have no more pain, no more stupid oxygen tank to lug around. No one will behave like Peter Van Houten, and Heaven is going to be so much more extraordinary than even Amsterdam’s canals and orange tulips and champagne!”
Yes, I’m the kind of person who yells at characters in books, especially books like this one, important and relevant to young adults, their parents, and well, everyone.
Feeling pain and loving deeply are two worthy ideas to contemplate with our kids and friends, fellow church goers and co-workers. I came away with a deeper understanding of those ideas, and they made TFIOS worth my time, money and contemplation.
Who’s seen it? Who’s read it?
What did YOU think?
What about The Gus Twist? Should Green have mentioned Heaven?
Why or why not?
PS: Check out my blog about another YA Wonder, “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell!