When I tried to explain this book to my sister, I said something like, “It’s about two teenagers with terminal cancer and how they fall in love but they also believe that humanity is only temporary on earth and that eventually we’ll all die and no one will remember us because no one will be left to remember, and it’s really depressing but also strangely uplifting.” Needless to say, she did not read the book. I feel like the only way to understand the complexity and uniqueness of this book is to read it. It has entered into YA fiction lore and will soon be turned into a film, but I really wanted to read it before the movie opened. Reading this book before seeing the movie has done a strange thing: it has become mine in a special, personal way.
“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like betrayal.”
The protagonist of this gem of a novel, Hazel Grace, speaks those words describing something akin to this phenomenon. With me, it’s like I have found another way to love this novel apart from the millions who have before me, a way to relate to this novel that makes it mine, the way art sometimes enters your heart and soul and changes you. This book has changed me, I think.
The part of this book I loved best was the way Hazel and Augustus related to each other: what they said, what they shared, the lack of self-consciousness that existed between them, the un-cliche romance they had that elevates this novel from what I expected: a sentimental YA romance. It’s nothing like that, and it’s because of the incredible personalities of the main characters.
“I’m in love with you,” he said quietly.
“Augustus,” I said.
“I am,” he said. He was staring at me, and I could see the corners of his eyes crinkling. “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
This post is not so much a review as a reflection upon this novel. Hazel and Augustus are sparkling, brilliant, larger-than-life characters who are more adult-minded than most adults I know. They show immense courage and take their lives in their own hands, but are not immune to despair. They’re also philosophically pessimistic in the way they believe in human oblivion, and eschew the typical “encouraging” quotes that others seem to subsist on. They know they’re going to die. But they also know that now, they are irresistibly alive. And that’s how I found this book uplifting:
But I believe in true love, you know? I don’t believe that everybody gets to keep their eyes or not get sick or whatever, but everybody should have true love, and it should last at least as long as your life does.
There it is: the thing that makes life worth living. Hazel and Augustus are sixteen and seventeen, both going to die long before their times. They neither show extreme self-pity nor extreme cloying sentimental optimism (usually). They’re realists, taking each moment to be with each other before they stop living. It’s that maturity that lends another level of depth to this story. They accept what is going to come, but they don’t use it as an excuse to stop living their lives while they have the time.
There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.
But then there is the question of what makes a worthwhile life? Whom do we remember most when we are gone, and why do we want to be remembered? For what do we want to be remembered? Hazel’s and Augustus’s opinions differ greatly on this issue.
Augustus wanted to be remembered for something special and important. He thought his life would “mean more” to the world, and when his time comes, he cannot come to terms with the fact that his life, according to his estimation, is unimportant and forgettable by mankind. He says, “I always thought my obituary would be in all the newspapers, that I’d have a story worth telling. I always had this secret suspicion that I was special….If you don’t live a life in service of a greater good, you’ve gotta at least die a death in service of a greater good, you know? And I fear that I won’t get either a life or a death that means anything.”
Hazel, on the other hand, has a very different view of what gives life meaning. She lectures Augustus when he despairs about the course of his life: “I just want to be enough for you, but I never can be. This can never be enough for you. But this is all you get. You get me, and your family, and this world. This is your life. I’m sorry if it sucks.”
Her definition of “meaning” is much less grand, and much more based upon love and not upon grandeur. In Augustus’s words, “she was loved deeply but not widely…It’s triumphant. It’s heroic.” To be loved and to love is the most important thing you could do, and if no one remembers you decades after you die, that doesn’t matter much, because in the end, everyone will be forgotten, whether you have been an emperor or a saint or a shepherd. What matters is to live your life while you have it, and to love deeply.
I saw the trailer a few days ago and cried. I will be a puddle of tears in the movie, squinting through dripping eyes at the elegance of Shailene Woodley’s long pixie cut.