In just over seven months I will marry a woman who, by the medical estimates available at the time of her diagnosis, is supposed to be dead. Which is to say that, like Hazel, the protagonist of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars, she has a terminal diagnosis. Also like Hazel, she is yet miraculously alive and – against wildly improbably odds – has found someone who can love her not because of her diagnosis, not in spite of her diagnosis, but merely along with it.
Upon learning that I’d never read any of Mr. Green’s books, my friend k practically foisted this book upon me, insisting that I slightly, if harmlessly, abuse my power at the library to read her copy before sending it back to the owning library. (I am comforted somewhat in knowing that Mr. Green’s Nerdfighter community would approve of a moderate abuse of library-power.) So I took it home on Friday.
Saturday morning I opened it. On the first page of the story I read the line that committed me to reading the book in one day, a line that is, absurdly though not inappropriately, a parenthetical:
(Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.)
I was hooked because I used to believe this; and I was hooked because I know it now to be wrong.
Like Hazel and Augustus and Isaac and all their families and doctors and nurses – in other words, like just about every character in the novel – I spend a fair amount of time thinking about two incredibly divergent things:
- How amazing and miraculous it is that this person I love and care about so much is still alive, and
- What I will do when she’s gone.
Because there is love and there is fear and they are not at all exclusive.
This is the thightrope-line that Mr. Green expertly walks, letting his natural variations in balance lean the novel toward one and then the other and back again and over and over until you really have no idea which is which anymore. You understand that to fear is to love, that you cannot fear anything at all in the world without also loving something. Finally, you understand that it doesn’t matter; you simply have to keep your balance.
For most of us, life is the default: to choose death would by necessity be an active choice. For Hazel, for Augustus, for Isaac, for their families – for Ashley, for me, for her family – the default is death: to choose life is by necessity an active choice. Like Hazel, Ashley takes medicine every day without which she would die. (Unlike Hazel, Ashley’s medicine is not the invention of a gracious author.)
The reason I know the parenthetical quoted above is wrong is that I’ve learned there is at least one thing that is not a side effect of dying, and that is choice. Choices are never bad, never good, never a function or effect of anything other than that the universe created something capable of observing, reflecting, and interpreting it. Choices are the burden of intelligence, the grace of individuality.
Because there is love, and there is fear. And there is choice, which is also not exclusive.
Like Hazel, Ashley chooses to live. She was honestly once asked literally to make that choice, but she continues to make it every moment of every day. More improbably, she chooses, again like Hazel, to love, every moment of every day despite knowing that she is – as Hazel would call herself – a grenade. Someday she may no longer be able to make that choice, scarring all of us who love her so much. That she faces that reality is the truest sign of love I can imagine.
The Fault of our Stars is about a young woman learning that one can choose love and fear, that one does not eclipse the other. It about learning that the human heart is strong and capable enough of being completely okay with both. It’s about learning that love is easy and fear is hard but it’s our choices that keep the rope taut.
It’s also about a grown man finally understand how lucky he is to have found someone who already knew all of this. And who has had the grace and patience to teach him.