I tend to be distrustful of best-selling books. This is because quite often, to make everyone love them, best sellers must appeal to the greatest common denominator. (James Patterson springs to mind.) Of course, there are also books that are best sellers because they are simply excellent, and John Green's novel The Fault in our Stars is one of those.
When I was gushing about it at work, one of my co-workers was like, "I'm still not sure I want to read it, because while I love John Green, hello: it's a cancer book." And yes: it is. Cancer books are hard; they can be maudlin and overwrought and you feel like you have to love them simply because they are about suffering. I clearly remember the first one I read, Lois Lowry's A Summer to Die. I read it in the winter of fifth grade because every girl in fifth grade was reading it. I took it with me to an appointment with the dentist; when he saw me reading it in his dental chair he asked me who in the novel died, and I said "no one!" as I hadn't finished it, but also as I couldn't yet imagine that a character (other than Beth in Little Women) would actually die in a novel. Of course there would be a miracle cure found! But, alas: no. Someone died, and I was introduced to the cancer-novel mini-genre.
In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel has incurable lung cancer. It's being held back by a drug that doesn't work for most people, but for Hazel it buys her enough time to finish her GED, take some college classes, and go to Cancer Kid Support Group. Gus shows up there one day, himself a cancer kid but in remission. Sparks fly.
I'm not sure what to say about a book which (right now) has 2,127 reviews on Amazon, 1,788 of them 5-stars. It is very nearly a perfect best-seller, which is to say it has the right mix of greatest common denominator (the cancer, the romance, and a trip to Amsterdam) and least (quirky characters, good writing, and mini-tangents on philosophy, reading, books, and Prufrock's love song). It touches on some of the horrific parts of disease without getting mired in them, all the while unwinding a romance that is protected from too much sweetness by its characters' adept sarcastic self-deprecation.
Honestly: It's not often a book I love is also loved by the masses. It's got just the right sort of cerebral, dry humor and non-schmaltzy pathos for me to love it.
And really: It's not perfect. The characters are a bit too much preternaturally wise. (Who memorizes the Lovesong in its entirety anyway?) It's a cancer book so you know what's likely to happen (you just don't know, really, who). But truly: you won't really care because you'll enjoy it anyway. Those faults make it even better, somehow. You can read all of the bajillion reviews on your favorite review site. You could ask your neighbor, sister, best friend, or daughter what she thought of it as one of them has likely read it. You could read it yourself! But before you do, a few quotes:
"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 which you can't tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal."
"What a slut time is. She screws everybody."
"You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them. Language buries, but does not resurrect."
"I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed."
"It's almost as if the way you imagine my dead self says more about you than it says about either the person I was or the whatever I am now. "
"The world is not a wishing-granting factory."
It's a cancer book, but it's also just a book, and my favorite experience I had with it was the shock of recognition I had at something Hazel's mom said. Before she started on Phalanxifor (her miracle drug), Hazel nearly died. Everyone, her doctors and her parents and even she herself, thought she was dying. Her parents told her it was OK to go, and they held her hand, and they she didn't go, but before she started to recuperate, she overheard her parents talking in the corner of her room. They thought she was dying, and her mom said "I won't be a mom anymore, after she goes" and that thought put into words exactly what I have been grappling with. Not that having your daughter turn 18 and leave for college is anything like having her dying. But the ache in my heart is just that same fear: that after she leaves, I won't be the mother of a daughter anymore. Won't be her mother in the same way ever again.
So sure: The Fault in Our Stars is a cancer book. But it is more than that: It's about relationships (both of the romantic sort and of the familial), and friendships, and being a teenager. It's about risking things for something that's important. It's about moving forward despite, which is, after all, the most common denominator.