Jan 13, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The narrator of The Fault in Our Stars is sixteen year-old Hazel, who has been living with cancer for many years. As she herself puts it, Hazel has “never been anything but terminal”; however, a medical miracle when she was 13 granted her an as yet unknown amount of time. At her parents’ insistence, Hazel attends Cancer Kid Support Group, to better cope with her depression (which is not, Hazel clarifies, a side effect of cancer, but rather a side effect of dying). It is there that she meets Augustus Waters, who quickly charms her with his tendency to pick his behaviours based on their metaphorical resonance (and it doesn’t hurt that he’s hot, too). Hazel’s emerging relationship with Augustus, their shared loved for a novel by a reclusive writer by the name of Peter Van Houten, and an unexpected trip to Amsterdam are all about to leave an indelible mark on her life.

The Fault in Our Stars will almost certainly make you cry, but I almost hesitate to emphasise that because the last thing I want to do is make this sound like a novel that capitalises on its subject matter for instant or easy emotional impact. John Green has said he hoped this would be a novel that would make readers feel ALL THE THINGS, and I think it succeeds very impressively on that regard. You’ll feel for Hazel and Augustus, who have gone beyond what many of us consider the unimaginable and carried on. But The Fault in Our Stars is as much about life as it is about death, and it’s every bit as funny as it is sad. It’s also a novel of ideas, engaging with big questions about what we understand by heroism, about our fear of death and oblivion, about the meanings we create, and about the consequences of accepting certain narratives about the worth of our lives.

Because I can’t discuss this novel in more detail without revealing, at least indirectly, something readers only learn more than halfway through it, I’ll ask those of you who mind spoilers and haven’t read it yet to stop here. The short of it is that The Fault in Our Stars is an amazing book. Read it, read it, read it – and then please come discuss it with me.

There will be SPOILERS from this point on:

One of my favourite things about The Fault in Our Stars is the fact that at the centre of the novel is a tribute to thoughtfulness. It celebrates intellectual engagement with the world not only as a means to an end, but for its own sake; not just as a tool, but as a rewarding way of living our lives. The incredibly moving letter that finishes the book pays homage to a kind of heroism that has long gone unrecognised: the heroism in observing, in thinking, in not rushing into action. To make matters even more interesting, The Fault in Our Stars explores the relationship between gender and our definitions of action, of achievement, of worthiness. At one point in the novel, Augustus expresses the conviction that a worthy life is one lived for a cause; similarly, a worthy death is one in the name of something larger than oneself. And of course, much of what he believes is deeply entrenched in our understanding of masculinity.

As I read The Fault in Our Stars, I kept thinking about what the text was telling us with the gender of each of its two main characters. Hazel’s more traditionally feminine (and highly devalued) form of heroism and Augustus’ ambitions and frustration both make sense in light of our culture and how each of them would have been socialised. However, just because something is realistic it doesn’t mean I’m happy for every story I read to reinscribe it, so at one point I wondered whether it would have been more subversive to have their roles reversed. But the beautiful thing about this novel is that it acknowledges that its dying protagonists are teenagers who are growing, who are becoming. They may not be growing towards something, but that doesn’t at all make their evolving personhood a waste.

Very often, the deaths of people like Hazel and Augustus are lamented in terms of for what they could have become. People talk of lives cut short, of wasted potential, and so on and so forth. And of course that it’s only human to be sorry for what could have been; to want to see these brilliant young people go further and further. But there’s also what they were; what they did become – and that’s not nothing. As human as regretting what never was is, it’s important to take care not to let grief bury the people they were. Augustus’ final letter reveals that before his death, he did become a boy who defined himself and the worth of his life in his own terms. The fact that he wasn’t one all along only heightens what the novel is doing thematically, in a way that wouldn’t have stood out as much had this been presented as a given fact.

Another thing The Fault in Our Stars does brilliantly is introduce Hazel as a subject and make her experiences the focus of the novel. A lot of stories about people with terminal illnesses are about the survivors. Take, for example, two other excellent YA novels dealing with cancer, A Monster Calls and Two Weeks with the Queen. The stories they tell are of course worth telling, but their focus is on losing someone, rather than being the one who’s about to be lost. They’re about dealing with grief, whereas The Fault in Our Stars is, among other things, about what it’s like to know you’ll be the cause of grief.

Hazel describes herself as a grenade that could explore at any time and hurt everyone who’s nearby. She grows to trust her loved ones, particularly her parents, when they tell her that having the chance to know her while she’s alive is more than worth all the future pain in the world, but this is by no means easy to negotiate. The novel acknowledges the complexity of this kind of emotional experience, and perhaps even more importantly, it gives Hazel a voice. For once, readers are not only invited to step into the shoes of the mourning family, but also into the shoes of the one who’s going to leave them behind.

The Fault in Our Stars deals with what happens once the questions that preoccupy most cancer narratives have been settled. The focus isn’t on whether Hazel and Augusts will survive, nor on how long they have; it’s on the business of living with the pressing reality of death. There’s hope and a measure of acceptance in the strategies they find, but this is done without any false comfort. They make the best of their circumstances because doing so is worth it, but there are no platitudes; no reduction of their pain to an inspirational example for the benefit of those of us lucky enough to be currently healthy.

Hazel makes several references to the sentimentality of the “cancer kid genre”, and fortunately her narrative is too honest to ever fall into any such trap. It acknowledges that dying is a messy business, and that illness often causes others to shrink away. There’s no romantic glow around Hazel and Augustus’ pain; it’s not used to other them, to extol them, or to elevate their love above ordinary love. They love each other and they’re brilliant and they die young, and there’s no way at all around the fact that that absolutely sucks. But the brevity of their experience is not allowed to become its only defining quality.

As you can probably tell by the “cancer kid genre” comment, there’s plenty of humour and sarcasm in how Hazel tells her story, but her tone is not once cruel or self-righteous. Hazel is, as Augustus says about her at the end, funny without ever being mean – she may reject ready-made comfort, but she doesn’t ridicule other people’s despair, their titbits of meaning, the comfort and coping strategies they manage to find. As her speech at Augustus’ funeral shows, there’s no point in hurting the living, even if you don’t want your life and death to be defined only in their terms.

Before I wrap up this already long post, I want to talk a little bit about the Peter Van Houten plotline: it’s difficult not to see all along that Hazel meeting the author of her favourite book to find out from him what happened next to the characters will end in tears and disappointment. And yet you still cringe when it happens, in all its cruel glory – the cruelty only heightened by the truth of much of what Peter Van Houten is saying. The almost over-the-top catastrophic situation turns what could easily have been a too-easy lesson about books belonging to their readers into a scene that actually works. With the dark humour comes real emotional impact – and later on real insight about heroes with feet of clay and how literature works its magic for our young narrator.

There’s so much about this novel I haven’t touched on at all, including all the smart allusions – there’s Eliot, there’s William Carlos Williams, there’s visual art, and most of all there’s the deep convictions that teenagers will be smart and intellectually curious and well-read. But this is John Green, after all, who I can’t imagine would ever approach writing YA in any other way.

A few of my favourite bits:
My favourite book, by a wide margin, was An Imperial Affliction, but I didn’t like to tell people about it. Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books, like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.

I could feel everybody watching us, wondering what was wrong with us, and whether it would kill us, and how heroic my mom must be, and everything else. That was the worst part about having cancer, sometimes: The physical evidence of disease separates you from other people. We were irreconcilably other, and never was it more obvious than when the three of us walked through the empty plane, the stewardess nodding sympathetically and gesturing us toward our row in the distant back.
They read it too: Reading Rants!, Book Harbinger

(You?)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

39 comments:

Verity said...

Wow - that sounds like a powerful book . I've put it on my amazon wishlist for now as the library doesn't have a copy :( boo...

Debi said...

I would go "Read it, read it, read it" but it *still* hasn't come!!! :(

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I want to read this so much, but at the same time I'm terrified to read it!

Vivienne said...

I have skimmed half of this because I haven't read it yet. I only downloaded it a couple of days ago so I am impressed by your speediness. Did you get a signed copy in the end?

I have my box of tissues ready!

Nymeth said...

Verity: Hopefully they'll get one before too long. It's going to be a huge book for sure.

Debi: I can't believe I got mine before you did! Fingers crossed that it arrives today, so you can have a treat for the weekend. Well, assuming you have time, which I know has seldom been the case.

Jill: Don't worry, you'll be fine! I mean, it IS heartbreaking, but you'll be glad to have read it.

Vivienne: Yes! It arrived yesterday and it was signed IN PURPLE :D I read it in a single sitting and then could NOT stop thinking about it for the rest of the day. This post is my attempt to process my thoughts - and also a desperate plea for others who have finished to come discuss it with me :P

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I can't wait to read it and then discuss it with you. My copy (signed in blue, my favorite color!) came Wednesday evening. I had to catch up on Moby Dick and so I haven't allowed my self to dive in yet. I'm dying to read it.

Fiona said...

Everyone seems to be talking about this book - I haven't read John Green but he's high on my list of authors I must read.

Zibilee said...

I want to read this one, so I avoided the spoilers. I don't mind when a book makes me cry, and sometimes, I even appreciate it. I need to seek this one out soon. Great review today!

Stephanie said...

I'll be back after I read the book. ;-) Is it as good as Waiting for Alaska?

Nymeth said...

Melissa: I can't wait either! Dying to talk about it.

Fiona: Yeah, it's going to be a huge one for sure. Do try him! It's hard to go wrong with him.

Zibilee: I definitely don't mind it either :)

Stephanie: Such a difficult question, especially as "better" is so subjective! His other novels have been with me longer, so right now they mean more to me, but I think this might be his most polished one yet. And as much as I love it now, I think I'll only grow to love it more over time.

eveningreader said...

John Green is one of those authors I keep meaning to read because you've recommended him so highly. In fact, I am so well-meaning that I actually bought a copy of Looking for Alaska, which is on the TBR pile (well, metaphorically speaking, because it's on my Kindle). That reminds me...I should figure out just what percentage of my TBR you are actually responsible for! I'm sure it's not insignificant. :)

Marigold Lott said...

WOW! My buy. I am already crying.

Staci said...

I so can't wait to get this one!! Wonderful thoughts!

Trisha said...

I totally stopped at the spoilery part. :) I really enjoy Green's novels so I am sure I will pick this one up at some point.

Holly said...

Wow. Articulate and thoughtful review as always. Thank you for including spoilers. I, too, loved that this was a tribute to people who NOTICE things.

Holly said...

I had such a hard time writing a review with no spoilers.

Chachic said...

I didn't read your whole review because I haven't read the book but will do so this weekend. Yay, so glad we already have copies here in the Philippines. My friend was looking for one the other day and it looks like it's out of stock in all the bookstores here.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Hey if I can subject myself to a book about a veterinarian ghost, ruminating over all the animals that she had to put down, I can read this. (In fact, I think I cried MORE over the latest Stephen King novel.) One of my New Year's resolutions is to have a John Green fest, since I have most of his books. I'm feeling it coming on...

Jenny said...

This sounds good! And sad, especially whatever happens when they meet their favorite author. I always slightly dread learning more about authors I love, in case they're jerks -- it's part of why I love Neil Gaiman so much, that he proves over and over what a sweet, cool, classy guy he is to teh fans.

bermudaonion said...

I avoided the spoilers but I'm undecided if I want to read the book. It sounds very powerful, but it might be too close to home for me right now.

Kailana said...

My copy hasn't arrived!! So annoying!

Aarti said...

So I think because my last (and only) John Green experience was Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which I wasn't a huge fan of, I am not the Green fangirl that so many are. But people ADORE him, so I feel like I should give him another go, particularly in a book with just him as the author.

Amy @ My Friend Amy said...

Aw Ana this review is perfect! I loved so much of what you made note of.

Trish said...

I've only read a handful of John Green novels so far but the thing that strikes me about his writing is that it does make you feel EVERYTHING. Not just the sad but also the happy and the nostalgic and the wondering and questioning and the joy and the sentimental. I'll look forward to this one (one day). Still have a few of his others on my shelf to tackle first.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

"It’s important to take care not to let grief bury the people they were."

Such a wonderful point. I was so impressed by how deftly Green navigated the minefield of traps this book could have held. It could have been too cold, too sappy, too preachy, etc. Instead it was a wonderfully honest look at two teenagers who happen to have cancer, but who are so much more than that. I loved it.

Nymeth said...

Priscilla: I'd say sorry, but then again more books is a good thing, right? :P I hope you enjoy LFA when you get around to it!

Marigold Lott: It's incredibly moving without every being sappy.

Staci: And I can't wait to hear how you like it!

Trisha: And I'm sure you'll enjoy it!

Holly: I think you did a great job of keeping yours spoilers free while still giving people a good idea of why the book is so great.

Chachic: Very glad to hear you found it! I can't wait to hear what you think.

Sandy: Eep, the vegetarian ghost one sounds like more than I could take. Horrible things happening to animals = my no good area in fiction. It's not that I care more than I do about people, but I'm more used to processing human tragedy and thus can handle it better (generally).

Jenny: Yes! And the scene is just so horrible - you know all along that her idea that he'll tell her everything about the character's futures won't work out, but not that he's going to be absolutely horrid about it. Poor Hazel. But it was nice that even the author who was a jerk was eventually humanised.

Kathy: :( I don't want to pry into that comment, but I want you to know I'm sending my best wishes to you and yours *hugs*

Kelly: Argh, sorry to hear it! Hopefully tomorrow?

Aarti: WGWG is my least favourite of his, though I wouldn't say I disliked it. But I think you should try this one, because if it doesn't convert you, nothing will.

Amy: Aw, thank you <3

Trish: Yes! He does that so well, doesn't he?

Melissa: Yes, it really could have, but he managed to strike a perfect balance. It was wonderful that Hazel and Augustus were never solely defined by their illnesses. I can't wait to read your post tomorrow, and thank you again for your e-mail.

Melody said...

I'm definitely adding this onto my wishlist! Thanks for the lovely review, Ana!

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

So I basically skipped the majority of your review because I'm going to read this very soon and want to avoid any possible spoilers. But I've bookmarked your post and will get back to it once I finish the book. :)

Jeanne said...

I've been looking forward to this new one without even knowing it was about issues I've been living through lately. My son just got a signed copy, and I may have to put another bookmark in it when he sets it down.

Kristen said...

What a well-thought out review! I thoroughly enjoyed the book and this review of it because I too, am itching to hear what others have to say about TFIOS. I'd definitely say it's my favorite John Green novel and that I have rapidly turned into a fan-girl which I never thought I'd do in my entire life...but at least it's an author that's turned me into a fan-girl! I read this almost a week ago and I still can't stop gushing about it for long enough to really process it!

Debi said...

So glad I could finally come back and read your whole post. As you so often do, you again made me feel unbelievably blessed. Your words, the way you are able to put thoughts to paper...they are a gift, dear Ana. It's just the most amazing thing to have someone be able to express thoughts that you yourself can't coherently express. And yes, there are also added bonuses of seeing things through your eyes that mine had missed completely. :)

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

I only skimmed your post because I haven't read this yet, but The Fault in Our Stars sounds exactly as brilliant as I expect it to be. I hope to get back to your review when I finally get my hands on a copy. :)

Chris said...

Such a beautiful review, Ana. Maybe my favorite of yours yet. I just finished this book...just put my own thoughts together and wow. This book was so much more than I even thought it would be. Like you said, I just loved the respect he gave these characters. That the focus was on those that WERE the people with cancer and what it's like to be that. And more importantly, who they were as people aside from the cancer. Just a beautiful book. And I'm glad you put the spoiler warning and talked about specifics :) It's so good to read someone else's thoughts on the specifics of the novel. *hugs*

Mumsy said...

Great review, Nymeth. I didn't really think of the difference between the two ways of regarding the worthiness of life as gender-based; perhaps because I have female friends who take Augustus's point of view, and male ones who think like Hazel. (Also, seems like Hazel's Dad was a Hazelite, rather than an Augustinian, don you think?) I was struck by how the ways of looking at the world were now clear and sharp-edged, and now melting into one another and blurred. And I loved, loved, loved, how the characters talked and talked so that you fell in love with them yourself and broke your heart for them. This is the first John Green I've read, and now I am scared to try one of the others because I just know it won't be THIS good. (Plus my eyes are still blurred with tears and I probably wouldn't be able to read them anyway.)

Nymeth said...

Melody and Heather, I look forward to hearing what you both think :)

Jeanne: I loved your post about it. Also, hugs and warm thoughts to you and your family.

Kristen: I keep thinking about it too, and it's been weeks and weeks now. If there's an author that deserves to have us all become fangirls it's him!

Debi: You're always too kind *hugs*

Darlyn: I hope it lives up to your expectations! And I think it will.

Chris: Hazel and Augustus were so human, weren't they? I just heard his NPR interview and it made me tear up all over again. Of course, that's not exactly hard, since even thinking about the book will often do it :P

Mumsy: *hands you tissues* Yes, I completely agree about Hazel's father. I thought the book hinted that both Hazel and Augustus constructed their worldview in gendered terms, especially in the two scenes where they discuss movies. But of course, the whole point is that the association between these two ideas and gender is far from inevitable, and I thought that by the end they had both come to see that. As for his other books, I'm especially fond of Paper Towns, but it's so different. My friend Renay wrote a post about where to start with him just the other day, actually, which might be helpful for when you're ready to read him again.

Mira said...

Hello, i just finished reading the book and loved it so much, you get to laugh and cry, but what rally got my curiosity was the last line of Augustus

“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.”


CAN you PLEASE explain this to me,, it's just too deep for me to understand, please, i dying to know the meaning please plese

livingbyfiction said...

@Mira, Augustus means that whoever you love will hurt you. They will disappoint you. They will see you covered in vomit and pull away slightly. They will not live forever, or they will stay alive while death snatches you away.

The world is not a wish-granting factory, and always (but most acutely at the moment of grenade-dom) the people closest to you will hurt you. Augustus is saying that he's so glad Hazel was close even though it meant that she was there when his last shred of dignity was too small to see (next to the laundry basket).

I have more thoughts, having just reviewed it on my own blog (linked to my name).

@Nymeth, great review of a great book!

Mirza Ghalib said...

The Fault in Our Stars is one of the most hyped about books by John Green. The plot of the book plus Green's writing style makes it a really great book. This is not generally the type of book I go for. I am not much into such tear-jerkers novels. I like fast reads, but TFiOS is an exception. I loved the book. I won't write the synopsis or give any spoilers. All I would like to say is that this book gives you a lot of positive messages. Read it really slowly and in a quiet atmosphere, you will find it magical and greatly moving. Highly recommended.

This is truly a book to treasure.

Love Shayari said...

Besides the obvious fact that you own the book, this book finds a way into your heart and for some reason is very personal. You'll realize this while you're on your journey through it.

It's funny, it's smart, it touching, heart warming and heart breaking. It makes you fall in love. And it reminds you that the words "till death do us apart" are wrong. It goes beyond that.
John Green is a beautiful author and transforms the words into a motion picture.

And in the famous words of Ron Wesley, "You'll suffer, but you'll be happy about it.