I'm not at ease with cancer stories. That illness itself makes me shudder; I might go as far as to say I'm even mildly phobic about it. But I still wanted to check this book, after reading so many good reviews about it, and after I was told that it wasn't so much about vivid descriptions of cancer itself. So, when it popped up at the library near my parents' home, I seized the opportunity.
Well, I might be a horrible, callous person, because I just don't get the whole tear-inducing, heart-wrenching hype around this novel. Or maybe whatever passes for a heart in my chest cavity was too busy rolling its metaphorical eyes at all the pompousness, which for me totally ruined the story. It made me wonder if a thesaurus was harmed, raped and defaced in the process. When using Big Words, the least one can do is to us Big Words That Actually Mean What They're Supposed To Mean. (Definition of hamartia: the error in judgement that causes the hero to achieve the opposite of what s/he meant, leading to the actual tragedy. Not just any character flaw.) This is not how I, of all people, could be touched, not when I'm too busy wondering who the hell talks like that.
Hazel struck me as pretentious, and incredibly judgemental when it came to a lot of people around her. Gallows humour I could definitely take, understand, and appreciate—but this wasn't humour. This was just demeaning. The way she spoke of the support group and of Patrick, as if his life had no value? Disgusting:
"...the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life."
I sure couldn't empathise with her attitude towards her parents at times (how dare they show feelings and cry; or wake her up at 5:30 in the morning to prepare and board the plane to go to Amsterdam; or send her to support group, instead of allowing her to basically be already dead in
her everyday life). Even her attitude towards her teachers, when she attended morning classes.
And the "metaphors". That whole thing with the eggs and breakfast foods and me going "can we get to some actual point, and not some stupid rambling about a topic that I wouldn't even tackle if I were completely wasted?" Or the hurdles:
"And I wondered if hurdlers ever thought, you know, This would go faster if we just got rid of the hurdles.”
That's not philosophical. That's idiotic.
The love-at-first-sight trope seldom works for me, and it didn't work here either. It turned the narrative into something rather cheesy, especially with all the pompous dialogues. (Seriously, I've met my share of university teachers and educated people in general... and we just don't talk like that, certainly not without preparing our speeches first. So teenagers, no matter how smart? Sorry, I just can't believe it.)
Somehow, it reminded me of some of the stuff I wrote when I was 15-16, and found recently at the bottom of a cardboard box. I remembered those "pieces" as witty, smart, full of deep meaning. I remembered writing them with such goals in mind. I was good at writing, too; I always had top grades in French and Literature classes. Then I read those again—now, that is, 20 years later—and I realised how full of myself I was at the time, and how my Big Words And Sentences were in fact just so shallow. The characters here, and their way of talking and being, left me with the same feeling. They never seemed to leave the surface level. Now that I'm done with the book, I still don't know what Hazel likes (apart from An Imperial Affliction and her favourite TV show), what else she used to do before being diagnosed, and so on. She's defined by 1) her illness (though said illness looked kind of like a ploy to elicit emotion, rather than anything else) and 2) Augustus, and... What else? I have no idea.
I think it could've been a great story... only without its pretentiousness, without its flat characters, and without its tendency to take the reader by the hand to put his/her nose into the supposed deep meaning hidden within the pages. When you feel like a novel is trying to manipulate you, is when suspension of disbelief shatters.