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Not Quite So Star Crossed
A Different Kind of Cancer Love Story
By now, John Green's The Fault In Our Stars has likely reached household name status. At the very least, it was popular enough to have a movie made of it, which also did quite well. At the surface, it's one of two types of stories: The poor lonely girl and the whimsical boy who teaches her to live and love again, or the Cancer Love Story. By the end, it seems like typical star-crossed lovers fare.
It is all of these things, and yet none of them. This book takes the usual tropes of two genres and not only subverts them, but plays with and discusses them several times throughout the narrative.
"Star-crossed lovers" often refers to pairs separated by circumstances. Romeo and Juliet fell in love but were forbidden contact by feuding families and the politics of their times. Jack and Ennis from "Brokeback Mountain" were kept apart by their culture and their duties to their families. It tends to be used as a blanket term for any unfortunate romantic pair, but upon closer analysis, Hazel and Augustus don't face the same oppositions as Romeo and Juliet or Jack and Ennis. They face something much greater, yet if that something were to be removed, they would most likely live happily ever after.
Hazel's point of view is very self-aware, she knows the type of story her life resembles before and after meeting the love of her life. She's not your typical golden girl who has it all before her life is shattered by a sudden collapse and diagnosis of cancer, she had that diagnosis four years before the start of the story. She's been living with it, she's had time to adjust to the fact that even with her miracle meds, her days are numbered. She's not surounded by throngs of sad friends and loved ones, she's mostly isolated aside from her parents and her one friend in the book. Her most consistent companions are her favorite novel and television shows. Hazel Grace Lancaster is less of a sainted angel about to be taken too soon and more a human girl all too aware of her impending mortality.
Hazel is also not so much the lonely girl as she is the girl who prefers to be alone. One underlying theme that's touched on now and then is that despite not being the most popular and revered girl, she does have people who love her and will miss her when she's gone: "I'm a grenade and at some point I'm going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?" This is part of why she resists her feelings for Augustus, not because of the usual teenage girl insecurities but because she knows if he outlives her, it's going to hurt him the way she'll inevitably hurt her parents.
She brings this up to their mutual friend Issac: "To be fair to Monica, what you did to her wasn't very nice either". When Issac's own cancer was about to take his sight entirely, his once-devoted girlfriend realized she couldn't handle the situation and ended the relationship. Hazel isn't sympathizing with Monica out of feeling she herself couldn't stay with a dying boy, but out of knowing most boys couldn't deal with loving a dying girl.
Hazel understands the conventions of the cancer patient story, but she embodies none of them. She's faced her impending death with graceful defeat, knowing the so-called miracle drug and the canula and oxygen tank can only go so far. If there's a chance she'll survive and live to a ripe old age, it's slim. She can function, she can leave the house and see people and she looks mostly normal save for the canula, but she's severely limited in her activities. The Anne Frank house doesn't have elevators, and we're shown her struggle to make it up the stairs. She tries to take out the canula before having sex with Augustus, but quickly needs to put it back in. She came close to death twice and managed to pull through. Her doctors and loved ones call it a miracle, Hazel is glad to be alive but realizes she's still in bad shape. "My lungs still suck at being lungs."
Augustus Waters is almost her complete opposite. He seems lively and cheerful despite having lost a leg to his own illness. He puts cigarettes between his teeth and doesn't light them. "It's a metaphor," he tells Hazel to calm her when she expresses her disgust; he puts something with the power to kill him in his mouth, but doesn't light it, thus giving it no power. He makes a big deal out of a lot of things. He speaks and thinks in a grandiose manner, coming off as dramatic and hammy at first but it's clear he's doing this intentionally. Augustus, also aware his time is short, wants to leave a mark on the world before he dies. It's his speech during their first meeting at the cancer support group that encourages Hazel to speak her own mind.
He doesn't leave a mark on the world, but he leaves more than a mark on Hazel. Despite her reluctance, the two hit it off fast and become friends, slowly falling in love. It's definitely not love at first sight for Hazel, but Augustus's feelings may be more ambiguous. He takes an instant liking to Hazel and brings her home to meet his parents. While Hazel takes longer to officially fall in love with him, we hear Augustus voice his feelings without knowing how long he's had them. It's a mishmash of slow burn and quick bonding; the question is not if they'll get together but rather when.
Augustus is no stranger to love. He tells Hazel the story of Caroline, a fellow cancer patient. Like Hazel, Caroline is not the angelic cancer patient archetype, nor is she the perfect girl Hazel feels she can never measure up to. Caroline suffered a brain tumor that ate away at her health and at her capacity for kindness; she became nastier and more negative by the day until her death. While her Facebook page is covered with people who love and miss her, Augustus doesn't sugarcoat things. "She was a bitch." But he loved her despite or possibly because of her imperfections, the way he loves Hazel for hers.
The Downfall of Augustus Waters
The trip to Amsterdam is the big highlight of their relationship, including a romantic dinner complete with champagne and a trip to the Anne Frank House. The main purpose of the trip is for them to get some answers from the author of Hazel's favorite novel, which does not go well; Augustus comforts a disappointed Hazel by promising to write his own continuation for her. They share their first kiss at the Anne Frank House, followed by sex in the hotel room later on. But all highlights burn out, and this one does when the next day Augustus tells Hazel his cancer has returned with a vengance.
It's unfair, they both realize. This was bound to happen, despite their sarcastic attitudes towards their diseases, they were both aware that this could happen to either of them, but it's still not fair. Hazel, despite everything, seemed to hope that maybe they'd have more time together. The deal is sealed when Augustus asks her and Issac to speak at his funeral. Augustus Waters is dying, and all they can do is make the most of the time they have left.
But it's not the same. Augustus's health continues to deteriorate, culminating in Hazel finding him at a cast station vomiting and in pain from an infected g-tube. Despite a few more "good days" it's clear the end is nigh and all Hazel can do is stay by his side, squashing her own feelings to be there for him. He does not, as Hazel tells us, fall in with the convention of the genre. He's unable to keep his sense of humor, becomes more withdrawn and quiet as time goes on.
The last semblance of his old self is present as his pre-funeral, where Hazel and Issac give touching speeches about all he's meant to them. Hazel refers to herself and Augustus as "star-crossed", but her speech is straight and to the point. She doesn't tell their love story, but rather shares her feelings for Augustus. Heartfelt, honest. She loves him, she'll always be grateful for him and for the time they spent together.
Eight days after his pre-funeral, the last "good day", Augustus dies. There is no symbolic loss of light or sorrowful choir, no talk of God taking an angel home. Just a phone call from Mrs. Waters to Hazel, followed by Hazel's tears. This is her "ten" on the pain scale, the worst she's ever felt. The loss of her one great love.
But while the story indeed has a tragic end from his side, there's still Hazel's to consider. Augustus has died, but rather than lamenting him no longer being by her side Hazel speaks at his funeral, talking about their relationship and what was important to them. Plus, there's the surprise visit of Peter van Houten to distract her; he shows remorse for his treatment of her and Augustus during their visit and explains his own sad story, then he shows Hazel a letter Augustus wrote him shortly before his death.
The letter seems to ease some of Hazel's sorrows. In the book, she says "I do" in response to the line about him hoping she likes her choices, this is considered a spiritual marriage. In the movie, she says "okay", which was their "always". A marked difference in meaning and wording, but the effect is still the same. Hazel will always miss Augustus, but his impact on her will never fade.
It can also be argued that Hazel herself doesn't have much longer to live, given her near-relapse midway through the story. Her medication was never a cure for her cancer, only a way to manage it. She survived through the power of medical science, but cancer is still cancer. So it's possible she was reunited with him in the afterlife not long after the story's end.
But in the end, these two aren't your usual star-crossed lovers. Death separates them, but it's implied that his courage and sense of humor rubbed off on Hazel, that she'll find a way to live her own life to the best of her abilities until her time comes.
Two cancer patients falling in love sounds like a recipe for a sappy, melodramatic tale, but the personalities of the lovers and the dynamic between them keep the story from falling into the usual cliches. Hazel loves Augustus, but isn't afraid to call him out when she thinks he's being ridiculous in his desire to be remembered by the whole world. Augustus readily admits to a crush on Hazel in the same breath which he gives her a hard time for using her "last wish" on a trip to Disney World when she was 13. They tease each other, they trade barbs, they do the same with their friend Issac. They're teenagers who walk around with an air of sophistication, but at their hearts they're a couple of nerds.
The Fault In Our Stars may have its own set of conventions and cliches, but it lacks those common in the cancer love story genre. And that goes double for the two romantic leads.