“My third best friend was an author who did not know I existed.”
Although the reader does not know exactly who Hazel is referring to when this line appears in Chapter 1, her nameless mention of him works to establish the enigmatic nature of Peter Van Houten’s character right from the beginning. Hazel imagines him as someone who is sympathetic to her situation as she feels that his novel, An Imperial Affliction, accurately depicts the reality of living with cancer. The way in which she idealizes Van Houten will eventually come into play later in the novel, making the reveal of his true character even more shocking.
“But to be perfectly frank, this childish idea that the author of a novel has some special insight into the characters in the novel…it’s ridiculous. That novel was composed of scratches on a page, dear. The characters inhabiting it have no life outside of those scratches. What happened to them? They all ceased to exist the moment the novel ended.”
Van Houten offers this retort to Hazel and Augustus in Chapter 12 when they arrive at his home in Amsterdam to ask questions about the characters in An Imperial Affliction. The demeaning answer that he gives them reflects a desire to distance himself from the content of his novel. In doing so, Van Houten completely shatters Hazel’s perception of him and the book she loves, becoming an antagonizing figure who ironically brings Hazel and Augustus even closer together.
“I was insufferable long before we lost her. Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.”
In Chapter 23, Van Houten approaches Hazel one final time in an attempt to make amends for his poor behavior in Amsterdam, and as he does, he reveals that he had a young daughter who died of cancer. The reflection he offers on the nature of grief represents his most authentic and vulnerable moment in the entire novel. By owning his flaws and opening up about his suffering, he somewhat redeems himself in Hazel’s eyes.