John Green is a monster from the hell dimension Lacrimosa who exists only to bring soul-wracking anguish into the homes of the literate.
I knew within a page that this was a book about Cancer Kids, having only picked it up because I kept reading quotes from it that I wish I had written. I don't like cancer as a plot device. Cancer is writing porn, like talking about 9/11 or the Holocaust. It's too effortless, too much emotion because of the condition which frees up the author to be lazy. Once a character is described as having cancer, the reader knows someone is going to be dead in the next hundred pages and they are going to cry. Here, we have three characters, all who had or have cancer, so the odds are against this being a lighthearted romp. Green seems to be aware of the limitations of this genre when he provides the metatextual criticism of a novel his main character likes, saying, "This isn't a cancer book, because cancer books suck." (John Green seems to be all about winking at the reader, as when Hazel later says, "I think you’re a pathetic alcoholic who says fancy things to get attention like a really precocious eleven-year-old and I feel super bad for you.") I figured that, understanding the genre and its tropes, I would be more or less inoculated against the worst of what he could throw at me.
Never have I been so wrong. I read the book straight through between panels I did at No Such Convention. I do not recall the last time I cared enough about a book - or more wanted a book to be over - than this one. Not quite halfway in, I began bawling, "If I keep reading, someone is going to die." Amber wanted more clarification, but I was reduced to making quiet walrus sounds and just thrust the book at her. This is something that occur several times throughout the novel.
Spoilers: Someone dies. This does not end the book because we have not suffered enough for John Green of Lacrimosa. No human suffering can ever be enough.
My main criticism is that, despite how many times his characters mock how cancerous people behave in books and movies, every teen in this books seems to have metastasized Diablo Codyitis. These are some precocious kids, ones who toss around words like "hamartia" as though most teen know about tragic flaws and literary criticism. Obnoxiously precocious when it comes to one-legged bone cancer sufferer Augustus Waters, who keeps a pack of cigarettes that he does not light but will occasionally put in his mouth, using the twee logic that it is important to put the instrument of death in your mouth but not give it the power to kill you. Our poor protagonist, Hazel, was damned to fall in love with him from his introduction. And yes, the novel is a bit masturbatory, as characters pause to make sure the reader understand how special everyone is, with lines like, "You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are." I didn't really mind it. This books is overall a good metaphor for what its characters are experiencing. You come to love unreal characters you know had very exact deadlines.
You get pretty much what you should expect out of this book. Yes, it is a bit cloyingly clever at times and things work out in a cinematic rather than realistic fashion. There should be a sticker on the front reading "This novel brought to you by the Amsterdam Tourism Board". As long as one doesn't expect it to closely follow the edicts of reality - as long as you accept it as its own world - it is exhaustingly enjoyable, one of the most exquisite literary experiences I have enjoyed in years. So long as you know words like "numinous", you may well feel the same.
Ideally, it should come boxed with tissues and the number of a trained and well-read crisis counselor. I was not quite the same for days afterward.