Thursday, July 18, 2013

GRAB(ook) Club: "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green

**There will be some spoilers in this post, so consider yourself warned. **

The plot of “The Fault in Stars” by John Green -- this month's GRAB(ook) Club selection -- could be summarized (at least in part) as “girl with cancer on hold (for now) meets boy who had cancer but is currently clear.” Since this is a book in which several of the main characters have cancer, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to realize that someone going to die by the end of the book – and since the girl is the narrator, you also know that’s it’s not likely going to be her. There are clues foreshadowing what's going to happen and to whom, which I picked up on pretty quickly -- so I was prepared for the big reveal when it finally came, although perhaps not the way in which it was done. 

Cancer books & movies have become a bit of a cliché (“Love Story,” the book by Erich Segal and the movie starring Ryan O’Neal & Ali MacGraw was, after all, a cancer story in part). That said, even though I had my suspicions about how the plot would evolve and how the book would end (some confirmed, some not), I enjoyed the book overall – and found a few surprises along the way.

I knew this book would probably make me cry. (I was forewarned by Mel when she first read the book.) I was on the commuter train platform as I entered the final part of the book – where Gus summons Hazel and Isaac to meet him at the church – and I felt tears starting to sting my eyes as the train pulled into the station. Part of me was dying to plow on & finish the book on the train -- but I knew I would probably keep on crying and get some weird looks from the other passengers (and I’d only just put on my makeup & I still had a full day of work ahead of me…). ; ) So I reluctantly turned my e-reader off. On the way home, I couldn't resist the temptation & opened my e-reader again. After a few more pages, I had to stop again, much as I wanted to keep going. I finally finished the book in the privacy of my home later that evening. ; ) 

There was much I could relate to in what the book had to say about death and grief and families and support groups and how the rest of the world reacts to the misfortune of others. “The world is not a wish-granting factory,” Hazel & Gus remind each other – something that many of us in the ALI community know only too well, albeit from a different perspective. 

I could also relate to the simple story of two teenagers falling in love under less than ideal circumstances. (Did anyone who read this book NOT fall in love with Gus, at least a little bit?)  I haven’t read any young adult fiction in a while now (so many books, so little time…) but I remember the books of my youth fondly, and I still like to dip into that world now & then. I can still remember what it was like to be a teenager and that giddy feeling of amazement when the hot-looking boy you like (although we didn’t use the term “hot” back then) actually likes you back. 

I loved the literate quality of this book – the discussions about books, the poetry that Hazel can quote from memory to Gus. The Shakespeare. The heartfelt eulogies. The various references to stars. I loved how the author worked Anne Frank – another teenager who lived under a different kind of shadow, also doomed to die young -- into the plot, too.

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As an aside -- one of Canada’s greatest national heroes, Terry Fox, had a leg amputated because of osteosarcoma.  He eventually decided that he wanted to run across Canada to raise funds for research to find a cure -- and began his journey in Newfoundland in April 1980. He ran a marathon. EVERY SINGLE DAY. ON ONE GOOD LEG & a prosthetic. By the time he reached Ontario, he was met by cheering crowds. He filled Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. 

I was in university at the time -- he was just a few years older than me -- and my friends & I talked about how we would go to see him and cheer him on when he passed through Winnipeg that fall.

But before the fall term began, in early September, Terry's epic run ended in northwestern Ontario, just outside of Thunder Bay on Lake Superior. (The town later erected a statue near the spot a few years later -- I had my photo taken in front of it when I drove through with my parents in June 1984.) He was experiencing chest pains, coughing fits and shortness of breath. He cried as he told the press that the cancer had returned and spread to his lungs. Less than a year later, he was dead at the age of 22.   I cried when I heard the news, and I still get tearful sometimes when I think about it.

In the 30+ years since then, Terry Fox Runs have been held across Canada and around the world each September. To date, they have raised more than $500 million for cancer research. 

A few years ago, my department hired a young guy on contract who had lost a leg to the same cancer. In fact, he started right around Terry Fox Run time & on one of his first days at work, I could hear him in a nearby cubicle, doing some media interviews on their behalf, telling his story. He had been cancer-free for a while but still saw his specialists for regular checkups.  He was only with us about a year, but called me a few months after his departure to ask me to edit his application letter for law school. I was glad to do so, and he gave me a hug and Starbucks gift card as thanks when we met to discuss my feedback. I asked him to keep me posted on what he was doing, but haven’t heard from him since. This book made me think about him. I hope he’s doing well.

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So all the above was really just the optional preamble to the main event:  book club participants have been asked to post a single question on their blog (as if we were all sitting in a room together talking about the book), which everyone can then answer in the comment section. All of the posts will be compiled in a linked list on Stirrup Queens. Discussions are also taking place on Facebook and GoodReads too -- post your question there if you don't have a blog and dive into the discussion.

I read this book on an e-reader, which was great in some respects, but made it difficult to flip around in contemplating a question.  And there were lots of questions that popped into my head while I was reading! (But did I write any of them down??)

Anyway -- my question: 

Key parts of the book (including the first meeting between Hazel & Gus) take place in a support group for young people with cancer. Did you ever attend a support group -- for pregnancy loss, infertility, adoption, or any other reason? How did your experience compare with Hazel's? Did you find it helpful? What did you like &/or dislike about the experience?
My own answer:

If you've read my blog, you'll know that dh & I began attending a perinatal loss support group about a month after Katie's stillbirth... and wound up staying for more than 11 years, 10 of them as facilitators.  So obviously, we found the experience helpful or we wouldn't have stayed as long as we did. ; )  Being able to talk about our experiences & feelings openly and honestly among people who had just been through something similar played a huge part in our healing. We used to refer to ourselves (unoriginally, of course) as the club nobody wanted to belong to -- with the caveat that, if you HAD to be a part of this club, you were in some pretty good company.  Like Hazel, we made some wonderful friends through the group. Some went on to have other children, some adopted, a very few (like us) were never able to have any living children.

Group is not for everyone. Some people don't like spilling their guts in front of strangers while others find it easier to talk with people who, while strangers, have a better idea than their family & friends of what they are going through. Some people find the support from their families & friends is enough. Some find solace online. (I did too, & that was my daily lifeline between meetings. I did crave the personal, real-life contact as well.) 

Some people, like us, found kindred spirits in the group, and became "regulars."  Some would come once & we would never see them again. We tried not to take it personally. Some people just found it too depressing to sit and listen to sad story after sad story.  I am sure that some people were freaked out when they started learning all the other ways that it's possible to lose a baby.

Sometimes it only took one meeting for people to get what they needed out of it. I remember one couple who came to group only once, some time after their loss. The wife thought she was going insane. We listened to her story & reassured her that her reactions were normal for what she had been through and that some of us had been through exactly the same sort of thing. The relief in her face & voice was clear;  I could see the burden lifting from her shoulders. We never saw them at group again, but I continued to see them listed as donors in the organization's newsletter for years afterward.

I loved group but by the time we left, after facilitating for 10 years, I did feel it was time to move on. I still miss seeing all the wonderful friends I made there regularly, and being able to talk so openly about my daughter & what happened to us -- but I don't miss the responsibility.  I don't miss the (thankfully very few) clients who monopolized the conversation or held side conversations instead of listening to the person who held the floor or texted on their cellphone instead of giving others the courtesy of listening & paying attention to their story. :p

Aside from the fact that Hazel's group was for cancer patients & mine was for pregnancy & infant loss, there were a few other differences I noticed. While the group I went to met in a church for part of the time we attended, it was not religious in nature. We didn't have any prayers or reading of names, and we did not stand in a circle at the end & chant "Living our best life now" (!) or anything of that sort. I did find that slightly bizarre, but to each their own...  Our original group leaders insisted on giving everyone a hug as we left. It wasn't something mandated, just something from their generous hearts. We all loved that. :) 

You can find my group-related posts under the label  "support group" on the right-hand sidebar of this blog. 

After you answer my question, please click over to read the rest of the book club questions for The Fault in Our Stars.  You can get your own copy of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green at bookstores including Amazon.

10 comments:

  1. I am absolutely not a support group kind of person. I'd much rather wallow in my misery on my own than share it with others. Now, if others needed someone to listen to them share, I could do that. But the group dynamic means that everyone needs to share. Otherwise there is an inequality in the group and it would eventually stifle the sharing from all but the most attention-seeking participants.

    After my father died, we encouraged my mother to go to a grief group. I think she had a lot of guilt built up (she was not always sympathetic or understanding when my dad was ill) in addition to the grief of losing her husband. It worked well for her, as it opened the doors to some more social activities, which she really needed. And she made some good friends there. Groups are definitely not for me, but I can see their value.

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  2. While I was in the middle of treatments for infertility, I did not find any support groups in my local area. The closest RESOLVE group was 2 hours away and it wasn't feasible to get there. I came to turns with my child-free status on my own and dealt with my emotions on my own (along with my husband). About a year after leaving the treatments behind, I confessed my infertility and child-free status to some friends a church and how I wished there had been a support group for me. Shortly thereafter, I found myself starting a support group with 3 other women at my church. Being that it was at church, it was Christian-based and we found a book that would lead us in our discussions and that melded the scriptures as well as a woman's personal journey into its pages.

    Our group has now been meeting for almost a full year. We are getting ready to open up our small group to the entire church congregation and, eventually, the community. It is scary, but it is also something that I am passionate about in making sure that support is there for others who need it because it was never there for me.

    Also, getting back to "The Fault in our Stars", I read the book and loved the story and characters. It isn't something that I'd normally read and enjoy, but the characters were witty and sarcastic and yet loveable. And, their support group with its "ball-less" leaser, made me laugh as well as cry many times.

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  3. I haven't been in any support group like that, with regular meetings. I can see how it would be helpful though, but for some reason I shy away from the few I have been offered to join. I think I would prefer a one-to-one approach if having therapy sessions.

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  4. The story of Terry Fox was so moving. I hadn't heard of him before.

    As to your question, I'm afraid there's a lot of Hazel in me; this inability to let the support group help. I went to one meeting and never returned. I like the idea of support groups, I recommend them to others. And I wish I could find a support group sometimes, but I also know that ultimately, I'm not one to talk in a group.

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  5. I don't think a support group would be good for me. I think I would look at the others and determine who had it worse than me and that would make me feel better - and that really isn't helping me. It is rather mean of me. (And I am normally a nice person!) So, I don't think that would work.

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  6. I remember the Terry Fox story! I remember it as it unfolded, and then again when a film was made about his life.

    While I'm in a support group now (my Vino Support Group, for just about anything) I didn't seek one out while in the throes of IF. It was such a private struggle at that time, before the rise of even Internet groups.

    I bet you were a wonderful facilitator because of your exquisite ability to listen and abide. I'm sure you made the journey easier for those who came to your meetings.

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  7. I think there is great value in support groups. I've never attended a meeting like that. For me, the thought of having to talk out loud about very personal matters with a bunch of strangers staring at me...makes me feel nauseous just thinking about it! I have way too much social anxiety for that! Finding support groups on the Internet for Infertility and loss was priceless to me.

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  8. Never heard of the Terry Fox story until now. What a touching story!

    Being in a small village in a foreign country, I haven't found any support group here, but I've used some online forums, though I still think that the best type of IF "therapy" for me is still blogging and blog-hopping. I find that writing about it is easier than talking about it, I suppose.

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  9. It's late and I'm up waaaayyyy past my bedtime. I came here from Pamela's page, when I read that you were writing about The Fault In Our Stars. I also just read it and that same line: "The world is not a wish-granting factory,” kept reverberating in my brain. I cried like a fool and woke up with a headache and painful and swollen eyes. I should probably comment more when I've actually read your entire post.

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  10. Hi, I want to contact you & wasn't sure how. I love your blog & especially the list of other blogs.
    I've recently started blogging & generally supporting childless women & wonder whether you could add me please?
    My blog link is http://www.lesleypyne.co.uk/news-blog/
    Many thanks,
    Lesley

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