I have to admit something: I really despise The Fault in Our Stars. I hate the fact that at my work some wide-eyed teenage girl asks for it at least once a day and I have to go retrieve it and put it in her hands and send her on her way. I asked my teenage sister-in-law, who admitted her deep love for it, why she loved it so. Her response was, “because it’s the first love story I’ve really liked.” I reeled from that statement.
I wonder what it is about love + cancer that forms such a potent draw for teenagers. It happened in the early 2000s (remember all those cancer movies — Walk to Remember, Here on Earth, etc), and it seems to have caught fire again. Cancer becomes the symbol for love conquering all, and oh oh how I hate it.
To give you context, I have had several people in life succumb to cancer, but for this article, I’m just going to discuss my father. When I was in college, my father was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of liver cancer, and three years later he died of it. Oh, how he fought, longer than any doctor predicted, and oh how we grieved when he lost. But those sentences don’t convey the agony of doctor’s visits, and the actual horror of watching someone you love — someone quick to laugh and rather rotund who loves donuts and Dr. Pepper, someone with a brilliance that’s hard to find — disappear bit by bit.
The January before he died, three years ago, for his birthday he couldn’t eat anything, and I remember being shocked that my father — this man who snuck sweets into the house at every opportunity — was not able to eat the chocolate mousse my grandmother had prepared for him.
The last month was a slow and steady decline into nothing. It was a process of watching someone slowly be confined to a bed, and become more gaunt and yellow, and then be unable to move or speak as we all watched. It was quietly sitting by a bed, and holding his hand so carefully, because you could feel the bones and you didn’t want to hurt him, and watching him try to mouth words to you under a pain-and-morphine induced haze. It was something that still gives me nightmares. He confessed to my mother about a month before he died, that he didn’t want to go. He had so much more to do, but instead of a sudden cure or sudden clarity, he slowly vanished.
Maybe with this context you’ll understand why I hate books like The Fault in Our Stars or “feel good” cancer books. Cancer doesn’t feel good, and finding love doesn’t cure it. Carpe diem is a nice sentiment, but for those who suffer and those who watch, it feels rather empty. At the end, there is not a lot of ability to do anything. The end is full of tubes and weakness and stillness, and the image that these books convey is a rose-colored one.
Even though the book seems to loudly proclaim that is different — that it is about that harshness and the fight and those long slow nights — it’s nothing more than the view of someone who visits every now and then, thinks, “how brave they are in the face of this” and then uses it as inspiration porn to spur others to movement.
The reality is hard and murky and painful, and it is so much more than all of that. It’s so much more than “one sick love story”; it’s so much more than cancer as a metaphor for the brevity of life, and it’s so much more than death and anger. I’m tired of the “how beautiful” sentiment — the beauty of two doomed teenagers reaching against the abyss to find love and be okay. Oh how tragic! I’m tired of all of it. It is not okay, and it will never be okay.
The reality is the struggle, and perhaps, yes, there is some love and some grace and some ability to grasp what life has to offer, but oh how tired am I of having to read about cancer from this simplistic point and view it as a metaphor when my life was steeped in it for so long. It feels awkwardly voyeuristic, exhausting, frustrating, mostly inaccurate, painful, and cliché at best. So no thank you, I will search elsewhere for my teen fiction, and I will stay the fuck away from that mess.