Author: John Green
Genre: Young Adult, Romance, Fiction
First Publication: 2012
Setting Place: Indianapolis and Amsterdam
Protagonist: Hazel Grace Lancaster
Major Characters: Hazel Grace Lancaster, Augustus “Gus” Waters, Isaac, Mr. & Mrs. Lancaster
Theme: The Necessity of Suffering; Fear of Oblivion; The Insensitivity of the Universe; The Realities of Terminal Cancer; The Importance of Fiction
Narrator: Hazel Grace Lancaster, Hazel narrates the story in the first person, giving the reader access to her thoughts but also limiting the reader’s perspective to what she sees.
Seventeen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster reluctantly attends a cancer patients’ support group at her mother’s behest. Because of her cancer, she uses a portable oxygen tank to breathe properly. In one of the meetings she catches the eye of a teenage boy, and through the course of the meeting she learns the boy’s name is Augustus Waters. He’s there to support their mutual friend, Isaac. Isaac had a tumor in one eye that he had removed, and now he has to have his other eye taken out as well. After the meeting ends, Augustus approaches Hazel and tells her she looks like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. He invites Hazel to his house to watch the movie, and while hanging out, the two discuss their experiences with cancer. Hazel reveals she has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. Augustus had osteosarcoma, but he is now cancer free after having his leg amputated. Before Augustus takes Hazel home, they agree to read one another’s favorite novels. Augustus gives Hazel The Price of Dawn, and Hazel recommends An Imperial Affliction.
Hazel explains the magnificence of An Imperial Affliction: It is a novel about a girl named Anna who has cancer, and it’s the only account she’s read of living with cancer that matches her experience. She describes how the novel maddeningly ends midsentence, denying the reader closure about the fate of the novel’s characters. She speculates about the novel’s mysterious author, Peter Van Houten, who fled to Amsterdam after the novel was published and hasn’t been heard from since.
A week after Hazel and Augustus discuss the literary meaning of An Imperial Affliction, Augustus miraculously reveals he tracked down Van Houten’s assistant, Lidewij, and through her he’s managed to start an email correspondence with the reclusive author. He shares Van Houten’s letter with Hazel, and she devises a list of questions to send Van Houten, hoping to clear up the novel’s ambiguous conclusion. Hazel is most concerned with the fate of Anna’s mother. She figures that if Anna’s mother survives her daughter’s death, then her own parents will be alright after Hazel dies. Van Houten eventually replies, saying he could only answer Hazel’s questions in person. He invites her to stop by if she is ever in Amsterdam.
Shortly after Augustus invites Hazel on a picnic. It turns out he’s planned an elaborate Dutch-themed picnic where he reveals that a charitable foundation that grants the wishes of kids with cancer has agreed to grant his: he’s taking the two of them to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten. She is thrilled, but when he touches her face she feels hesitant for some reason. Over time she realizes that she likes him a lot, but she knows she’ll hurt him when she dies. She compares herself to a grenade.
In the midst of her struggle over what to do about Augustus, Hazel suffers a serious episode in which her lungs fill with fluid and she goes to the ICU. When she is released after a period of days, she learns that Augustus never left the hospital’s waiting room. He delivers Hazel another letter from Van Houten, this one more personal and more cryptic than the last. After reading the letter, Hazel is more determined than ever to go to Amsterdam. There is a problem though: Her parents and her team of doctors don’t think Hazel is strong enough to travel. The situation seems hopeless until one of the physicians most familiar with her case, Dr. Maria, convinces Hazel’s parents that Hazel must travel because she needs to live her life.
The plans are made for Augustus, Hazel, and Hazel’s mother to go to Amsterdam, but when Hazel and Augustus meet Van Houten they find that, instead of a prolific genius, he is a mean-spirited drunk who claims he cannot answer any of Hazel’s questions. The two leave Van Houten’s in utter disappointment, and accompanied by Lidewij, who feels horrified by Van Houten’s behavior, they tour Anne Frank’s house. At the end of the tour, Augustus and Hazel share a romantic kiss, to the applause of spectators. They head back to the hotel where they make love for the first and only time. The following day, Augustus confesses that while Hazel was in the ICU he had a body scan which revealed his cancer has returned and spread everywhere. They return to Indianapolis, and Hazel realizes Augustus is now the grenade. As his condition worsens he is less prone to his typical charm and confidence. He becomes vulnerable and scared, but is still a beautiful boy in Hazel’s mind. As this change occurs, she ceases calling him Augustus and starts referring to him as just Gus, as his parents do. Hazel recognizes that she loves him now as much as ever. Augustus’s condition deteriorates quickly. In his final days Augustus arranges a prefuneral for himself, and Isaac and Hazel give eulogies. Hazel steals a line from Van Houten about larger and smaller infinities. She says how much she loves Augustus, and that she would not trade their short time together for anything in the world.
Augustus dies eight days later. Hazel is astonished to find Van Houten at the funeral. Van Houten explains that he and Gus maintained correspondence and that Augustus demanded Van Houten make up for ruining the trip to Amsterdam by coming to his funeral to see Hazel. Van Houten abstractly reveals the fate of Anna’s mother, but Hazel is not interested. A few days later Isaac informs Hazel that Augustus was writing something for her. He had hinted about writing a sequel to An Imperial Affliction for her, and as Hazel scrambles to locate the pages she encounters Van Houten once more. He drunkenly reveals that Anna was the name of his daughter. She died of cancer when she was eight, and An Imperial Affliction was his literary attempt at reconciling himself with her death. Hazel tells Van Houten to sober up and write another book.
Eventually Hazel learns that Augustus sent the pages to Van Houten because he wanted Van Houten to use the pages to compose a well-written eulogy about Hazel. Lidewij forces Van Houten to read the pages and sends them straight off to Hazel. The novel concludes with Hazel reading Augustus’s words. He says getting hurt in this world is inevitable, but we do get to choose who we allow to hurt us, and that he his happy with his choice. He hopes she likes her choice too. The final words of the novel come from Hazel, who says she does.
Hazel Grace Lancaster – The novel’s narrator and 16-year-old protagonist. An astute and remarkably conscientious girl.
Augustus “Gus” Waters – The sixteen-year-old with osteosarcoma who becomes Hazel’s boyfriend.
Isaac – The mutual friend of Hazel’s and Augustus’s who facilitates their introduction at Support Group.
Mrs. Lancaster – Hazel’s mother. She is an emotionally strong and kind woman who has made it her life to care for Hazel.
Mr. Lancaster – Hazel’s father. He is caring and prone to tears.
Peter Van Houten – The infamous author of An Imperial Affliction.
Patrick – The leader and sole adult at Support Group.
Augustus’s parents – The few glimpses that we get of Augustus’s parents in the novel are of kind and understanding people.
Dr. Maria – Hazel’s primary cancer doctor. She is a strong, assertive, yet empathetic physician.
Lidewij Vliegenthart – Peter Van Houten’s assistant
Kaitlyn – Hazel’s friend and former schoolmate.
Monica – Isaac’s girlfriend and then ex-girlfriend
Caroline Mathers – Augustus’s former girlfriend who died from brain cancer.
Anna – The protagonist of An Imperial Affliction.
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
This Book’s initial situation isn’t the happiest of Disney-fied beginnings. In fact, a great deal of the exposition has to do with the very depressing topic of “What it’s like to be a teenager with a terminal illness?” So, as we get introduced to Hazel, our beloved heroine, we get to see the ins and outs of a day with cancer, which includes not going to school, being hovered over obsessively by one’s parents, watching lots of reality television, and going to Support Group in the basement of a church.
Things start to pick up when Hazel meets Augustus, a rather attractive boy in her Support Group. Pretty soon, they’re swooning over the same books and having phone calls into the wee hours of the night. With his arrival, Hazel starts seeing the possibility of a life more exciting than her cancer-ridden one… and Augustus agrees. Augustus starts corresponding with Hazel’s favorite writer (something she’s never been able to do) and lo and behold, they get an invitation to go to Amsterdam and learn more about the ending of Hazel’s favorite book.
The climax of the book might as well be called “When in Amsterdam…” because everything dramatic goes down in the European city. First of all, things do not go well with Peter Van Houten, and there’s an explosive scene at his house in which Augustus yells at him. Secondly, Augustus and Hazel finally give into those raging hormones. And thirdly (as if there could be any more!), Augustus breaks the news to Hazel that he recently had a PET scan and his cancer has returned aggressively. So now it’s him who’s dying?
The falling action in the story happens in accordance with Augustus’ failing health. Poor Hazel has to deal with the heartbreak of watching her first love get weaker and weaker. All she wants to do is be there for him, and watching him die takes up her whole life. When Augustus dies, it’s unimaginably hard.
In the end, Hazel is full-on mourning Augustus’s loss. But she reaches some closure when she talks to Peter Van Houten at the funeral and learns that he had a daughter who died of cancer, which is why he wrote An Imperial Affliction. She also discovers a eulogy that Augustus wrote for her before he died—one last word from her first love.
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