The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green:
I discovered The Fault in Our Stars by following the 2013 Tournament of Books - it was a much-discussed contender with a lot of support. Despite finding out what happened in the many spoilers in the comment section of the tournament (so you've been warned if you click on that link), I was intrigued to read this book that had gripped so many readers and made a literary superstar out of its author, John Green.
Knowing a major plot point before even reading the first sentence somewhat diminished my reading experience. I knew what what was coming, so I couldn't allow myself to be pleasantly pulled along. Instead, I searched for and collected the author's breadcrumbs, which was fun too, but typically a task done on the second reading.
Because spoilers somewhat ruined the experience for me, I shall not give you any! As for the plot, all I will say is that Hazel, our 1st person narrator, is a 16 year old terminal cancer patient, who must carry around a tank of oxygen and have tubes in her nostrils because her "lungs sucked at being lungs." At one of her weekly Support Group meetings, she meets Augustus, who had osteosarcoma and lost a leg to it.
One of the criticisms of the novel is that Hazel and Augustus don't really speak like you would imagine teenagers to. Sure, they say "like" quite a bit, but they also discuss existentialism, the universe, metaphor. Hazel recites a lengthy poem by T.S. Eliot by memory (another character later quotes a lengthy bit of Shakespeare in an eloquent letter, even though it's very out of character). In one conversation, Hazel has to explain to her mother what her t-shirt means (it says, this is not a pipe in French, but it is a picture of a pipe. Hazel's mom doesn't get it, but of course Hazel and Augustus understand perfectly well that "it's a drawing of a pipe. Get it? All representations of a thing are inherently abstract." I'm not sure I quite bought into all of their heavy, intellectual exchanges. I could see some teenagers using these words and structuring their sentences in these ways and exploring such topics, but the majority....not a chance.
There is a lot of humor throughout the book, which serves well to lighten the serious issues of cancer and dying. I loved the scene where Hazel counters one of Augustus's sisters and her superficial praise by saying a very snarky, "he's not that smart," which launches the two into a fake barb on how smart and hot Augustus is. "Seeing me naked actually took Hazel Grace's breath away,' he said, nodding toward the oxygen tank."
If you can just let go of the fact that most teenagers probably don't talk like Hazel and Augustus, it's a real pleasure to listen in on their conversations. Yes, quirky, intelligent replies are given to each other just a little too quickly, but that's ok. The topics of their many conversations provide depth to the novel and characters. I also enjoyed the teenagers' very real relationship with their parents. Green is not afraid to make Hazel's father teary often, or Hazel's mother have secret ambitions for after the inevitable outcome of "terminal" cancer, and he's also not afraid to have them bicker with each other and love each other in very real ways. On top of that, he has been able to convincingly write from the perspective of a dying 16-year-old girl. Not an easy feat, I imagine, but he pulls it off.