Hey, let’s take a break from the reading of young adult dystopian fiction. Just for a moment. It’ll be worth it.
On one of my rather habitual trips to Barnes & Noble I picked up The Fault In Our Stars at the recommendation of a friend. Alright, you’ve heard of it, good, let’s talk about it. I sat down in one of the big comfy chairs in the bookstore and I read John Green’s bestseller. All of it. (Sorry commerce.)
The Fault In Our Stars features as its focus one Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old diagnosed with stage four thyroid cancer that has colonized her lungs. While a miracle drug has helped extend her life, Hazel’s diagnosis is terminal. She is depressed and mainly keeps to herself, watching America’s Next Top Model marathons and rereading her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction.
Her parents are trying to help; in doing so, they force her to go to cancer support group. Enter Augustus Waters. He is there to support his friend Isaac, who will soon lose both eyes to cancer. Augustus won a battle with osteosarcoma and came out only one leg lighter. Hazel and Augustus click immediately. He won’t stop staring at her and, y’know what, she actually kind of likes it. Their romance unfolds in pretty typical teenage cancer-boy-meets-cancer-girl fashion. They watch movies and swap favorite books. Everything feels pretty normal right down to being forced to watch V for Vendetta in the living room instead of Augustus’s bedroom. They become enveloped in An Imperial Affliction, which speaks to both of them. This passion leads them to wonderful new places and experiences they never imagined were possible. And then everything changes.
From the moment I picked the book up, heck even before that, I knew it was going to be a sad story. It’s about kids with cancer that fall in love, an obvious recipe for cathartic tragedy. I’m not sure if it’s just me but the tragedy I expected and tragedy I got were vastly different, so color me surprised. Not just surprised, but angry. Really and truly pissed off.
When I finished the book and put it back on it’s shelf (what?), I immediately left Barnes & Noble to hide all those inconvenient emotions. Upon entering the car it hit me just how good the book really was. Green is incredibly deft when it comes to mixing humor in the face of death with passages that pull hard on heartstrings. Hard enough that other author’s might break those heartstrings. But Green’s book isn’t so overwhelmingly tragic that it’s completely impossible to read in a public place without having a breakdown. (Well, experiences may vary.) There are some truly amusing scenes, most provided by Augustus and his unending sarcasm and wit. Considering his circumstances, he, as a character, would normally need to be provided a comic sidekick, what Issac could be – but no, Augustus provides his own comic relief, undermining his tragedy.
Green portrays the flowering of first love and the cold darkness of heartbreak with aplomb. Hazel first realizes she is flirting with Augustus while texting him about An Imperial Affliction; we realize it as she does, but we also see her surprise that she likes it even though it’s all very new and perhaps unwise. Why pick wise? Hazel really likes this boy, she has fun and stimulating conversation with him and he takes her on silly but awesome dates. With him, she lives, rather than waits to die.
The most extreme instance of this: Augustus cashes in his Wish so Hazel can visit the author of her favorite book. She is conflicted. Hazel knows the pain she causes her parents and the people around her who love her and she doesn’t want to burden Augustus by leading him into inevitable heartbreak, because she is terminal. A trip of the magnitude could sorely affect her health, and her and Augustus’s mental well-being. She thinks she may be able to keep him from getting hurt by not letting him love her. Augustus responds by saying “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world…but you do have some say in who hurts you”. Despite her insistence that they are just friends, they do fall in love. Their love story, as expected, ends in pain and loss. Not in the pain and loss one might expect.
The Fault In Our Stars is now a major motion picture starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The movie adaptation does a pretty god job of keeping to what’s effective in the book, leaving out only minor details and adding scenes that really bring Hazel to life. However, I will leave the discussion of the movie’s merits to Charles, and simply say that I liked it very much and would recommend you seeing. But, of course, the book is better, and I more highly recommend. Go read it. Maybe not in public. If you do, bring tissues, just in case.