Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

First, a few disclaimers. I've met John Green. I like John Green. I've been a Nerdfighter since pretty much birth the term first arose on the vlog John and his brother Hank started in 2007, before it went viral and they became internationally known YouTube superstars. So, well, y'know - don't expect a completely unbiased review from me, is what I'm saying.

Posting a review of this book on Valentine's Day seems particularly appropriate, since a large part of the book is about love. The undying sort of first love that is made more poignant by the fact that the main characters in this particular novel are teens with cancer - and we are told from the outset that the narrator is terminal; she might live a while longer, but she's not going to pull through. (And yes, a female narrator is something new for John Green, and he pulls it off spectacularly well, since he appears to grasp that girls are, at the core, just people, the same as boys are, in many respects.)

The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of terminally ill Hazel, who meets a hot boy named Augustus Waters at the Support Group her parents force her to attend. Hazel and Augustus hit it off, and romance follows, even though Hazel tries hard to fend it off, believing that it's better not to form attachments, since she knows she's going to die, and she knows that the people she leaves behind will be hurt when she does, and, well, she doesn't want to be responsible for hurting more people than is absolutely necessary (and even then, as is the case with her parents, she wishes those people didn't have to be hurt).

Hazel tells Augustus about her favorite (fictional) book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten, a literary sort of book that accurately describes what it's like to be a teen dying of cancer, and which ends mid-sentence as the main character dies or loses the strength to continue. Both Hazel and Augustus end up loving the book, and chasing down the reclusive author to try to find answers to Hazel's questions about what happened to some of the other characters in the book. Hazel is especially concerned about the main character's mother, wanting a happy ending for that mother. Without it ever being stated, it's entirely clear that Hazel is particularly worried about what will become of her own mother once Hazel dies, since her mother's entire life pretty much revolves around caring for Hazel - it's her mother's full-time job, pretty much, and as an only child, Hazel worries that once she's gone, her mother will be left with nothing.

There is a lot going on in this book - a lot of themes, including the aforementioned ones involving family and romance as well as an examination of what it's like to be sick in today's society, and how ostracizing it can be. The Fault in Our Stars deals with issues of love and of loss in a wonderful way (affirming that it is indeed "better to have loved and lost/ than never to have loved at all" (Tennyson), even though that quote thankfully never appears inside its pages). Instead of a book about coming to terms with mortality - and, to be fair, there is a bit of that here, but in a "causing the reader to think about the big issues for themselves" way and not in a "spelled out for you because you're too dimwitted to get it otherwise" manner, Green has crafted a story of dealing with the issues that life gives you, full of love (parental, platonic, and romantic) and of philosophy and poetry.

The book includes quotations of poems, including "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot, "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens and, if memory serves, a bit of Robert Frost and Walt Whitman somewhere, although I couldn't readily find it. Quotations from Shakespeare (the title is drawn from Cassius's quote in Act I, scene 2 of Julius Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings") and from the fictitious novel by Van Houton, all of which tie into the plot and themes, sometimes in unexpectedly interrelated ways.

There are important conversations - conversations about what happens after death and whether there is such a thing as the immortality of the soul (that I totally remember having when I was a teen, if not in quite as articulate a way as Augustus and Hazel). Thoughts about Big Picture Things - the existence of God (or of some sort of knowing universe), what is it all about, why is there suffering, do you really need the bad things in order to appreciate the good, etc.

The writing is gorgeous - luminous. Numinous, even. The characters are human and real and have their faults and weaknesses as well as their strengths. They are angry and frightened as well as brave and noble. They are funny as well as tragic. And although there's a hopeful ending (yes, in a book that contains eulogies and in which you know for a fact that the main character is not long for this world, there's still a wonderfully hopeful ending), and although I already know that Tennyson was correct, the fact that the book hit me so very hard is a testament to the excellent writing and still more excellent ideas it contains.


wpolking said...

Agreed. This book is amazingly good. So difficult to write "Teens With Cancer" book without succumbing to Afterschool Special mawkishness (cough, Lurlene McDaniel, cough), but Green has done it.

swolk said...

Hi Kelly

I agree it's a terrific book. I loved it. And it is especially hard to pull off a "dying" book. However, I read another review somewhere (Goodreads?) that made a good point. The protagonists in most of Green's books are VERY much like: smart, hip, cynical, and very much like Green himself. I dont mind books about smart YAs; heck, I think we need more of them. But there are different kinds of smart. And you don't meet too many YAs who talk like a John Green character.

What do others think about this?

Liviania said...

I wonder if there's anyone left who is objective about John Green.

@swolk: Think about anyone praised for their dialogue - you'll find that's it's stylized. In life, people repeat words, stumble around their sentences, change tenses, and our brains automatically edit what we're hearing. On the written page, it can't be real. Real is unreadable. What works is a style that evokes the real.

And I certainly disagree that real teens can't be hip, smart, and/or cynical.

swolk said...

I certainly didn't say that teens aren't hip, smart, and cynical. Of course many are! And, like I wrote, we need more books to show that. My point is that in all John Green books that I've read that seems to describe all of his protagonists.

I think Green's one of the best YA writers today. No question. Maybe I'm looking for a very different kind of character from him.

wpolking said...

Liviania is right about both claims: some (not that many, but some) teens are verbally clever and sound like characters from a John Green novel (or is it the other way around?), and you do not want to read a novel filled with "real" dialogue. Green's protagonists are alike. So are Hemingway's (speaking of unrealistic "real" dialogue). I'm not sure that's necessarily a flaw.

Colleen said...

I think you guys are missing the point here - it's not that teens can't be hip and smart (please) but rather that all of Green's characters could be lifted and placed in each others books without skipping a beat. They all talk the same, they all act the same and all of them are a lot like the author.

Basically, they are all the same kind of hip and smart - if you put them together as a group they would likely finish each others sentences.

Indeed, Hemingway did something similar (although the argument there is that much of his work was obviously autobiographical).

So, is Green writing the same characters in different situations? Again, NOT A BAD THING as was made clear in swolk's comments. It's just an observation and the question is, does anyone else see this?

Caleb Dunaway said...

I actually just finished this, and while I love Green's character(s) to death ("existentially fraught free throws" is the exact sort of phrase I would use extemporaneously for no apparent reason), they are very much the SAME archetype with different names.

I was a little disappointed with The Fault in Our Stars because it hit me when reading it that I'd read it before, because it was very much a John Green book. Being a very John Green book is a good thing, but at some point you get a "been there, done that" feeling that damps the experience when it really shouldn't.

On the other hand, all the characters being ludicrously erudite is part of what makes a John Green novel work, and definitely a major part of the appeal of his books. So I'm not 100% sure that a John Green novel where all the characters are not distinct variants on the same archetype would work as well.

swolk said...

Colleen and Caleb articulate my points perfectly. I LOVE that Green is a more "literary" YA writer. I especially loved Looking for Alaska. But let's face it: How many times do you want to read the same hip, smart, and cynical?

I agree with Colleen that I could pluck Hazel and Gus in Stars and drop them in Alaska. And as Caleb writes, I read his books and really enjoy them, but I have the feeling as I read them that I've already been here. And they really do feel like they are all versions of John Green.

Still, I look forward to his books and will probably read them, but I'd really like to see him create a totally different, very un-John-Green-like character.


Anonymous said...

Like Liviania, I wonder if there are any readers left who are objective about John Green. I know I'm not, being pretty much a die-hard fan. And as a fan, I really LIKE the voice in his books, however one cares to characterize it. It's one of the things I most look forward to, and I'm not certain I'd be enamored of a complete switch/break in voice or tone.

But I think swolk's observation - that a lot of the teens in John's books (and short stories) sound similar - is a fair one. And that there aren't a plethora of teens who speak the way Green's characters do - but they definitely exist. (I know my younger daughter could be a Green character most days, vocabulary and sentence construction and hip/smartass tone and all, as could her friend, Ellie). So I don't find Green's portrayals unrealistic - and I always appreciate that his novels don't talk down to teens.

Finally, if anyone's still reading this comment (TL;DR, I know), I think it's important to note that nobody in the comments has said that actual teens aren't hip, smart and articulate.