Hazel is sixteen and despite her treatment for cancer, which has prolonged her life, she remains terminal. Dependant on oxygen to get through the day she spends most of her time sleeping, reading or watching America’s Next Top Model.
Her mother is convinced she is depressed, probably because she is dying, and insists that Hazel needs to get out of the house. Hazel has to forego America’s Next Top Model, much to her horror, in order to attend a dreaded Support Group for teenagers with cancer.
The Support Group gathering turns into something unexpected when she meets the brazen Augustus Waters and his friend Isaac. Augustus has suffered the effects of cancer with the loss of a limb to prove it and his friend Isaac is about to endure a loss of his own.
“Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying.”
The three friends live through the tides of their illness with varying degrees of success. They are angry, irreverent and sometimes very funny. They understand each other, the difficulties involved in being gravely ill. The terribleness of knowing that they are like a “grenade” that could go off at any time leaving behind casualties, their loved ones, to pick up the pieces.
The teenagers manage their daily routines while constantly thinking of their parents, their carers. The parents look at their children’s lives very differently. They are not able to be quite so humorous or irreverent about their child’s plight.
“You are not a grenade, not to us. Thinking about you dying makes us sad, Hazel, but you are not a grenade. You are amazing. You can’t know, sweetie, because you’ve never had a baby become a brilliant young reader with a side interest in horrible television shows, but the joy you bring us is so much greater than the sadness we feel about your illness.”
Augustus, Isaac and Hazel share a common ground that enables them to support each other purposefully and without cloying sympathy. Ultimately these three teenagers just want to be regular teenagers, but they are set apart by their cancer and they know it.
“That was the worst part about having cancer, sometimes: The physical evidence of disease separates you from other people.”
Hazel develops a fascination with a book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter van Houten. During the course of her illness she has read the book over and over again. She encourages Augustus to read it, which he does.
As a relationship begins to develop between the two, Augustus feels the need to do something for Hazel so he organises a trip to Amsterdam to meet up with the author of her most beloved book.
The trip does not quite go to plan, but the relationship between Augustus and Hazel evolves during this time. Through Green’s expert prose we begin to understand these two individuals as they become star crossed lovers.
“You say you're not special because the world doesn't know about you, but that's an insult to me. I know about you.”
Green has written an insightful book which candidly charts the raw emotions that reveal themselves when faced with death. Funny, sad and terrible, it is the story of love and loss. Beautifully written and expertly portrayed.
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