The Fault in Our Stars
“The Fault in Our Stars feels like the stakes have been raised, a swing for the fences that tackles big themes (life, love, and death) and succeeds. Mr. Green takes a potentially mawkish premise and delivers an honest, immediate, and deeply resonant story, one deserving of its status as a future classic.”
This review of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is being written some three months after the novel’s publication, but already the book feels like it is destined for an eternal shelf life. Among librarians and other book people, its name is being spoken in the same hushed tones that surrounded The Book Thief a few years ago, crossing generational lines and transcending its consignment to the Young Adult section of the bookstore.
Mr. Green is a literary rock star based on his first three novels, from his celebrated debut Looking for Alaska to his most recent Paper Towns. But those novels were essentially variations on a theme (the shy, unpopular boy in love with the mysterious, unattainable girl from afar)—reliable entries in the YA genre but staying mainly within its conventions.
The Fault in Our Stars feels like the stakes have been raised, a swing for the fences that tackles big themes (life, love, and death) and succeeds. Mr. Green takes a potentially mawkish premise and delivers an honest, immediate, and deeply resonant story, one deserving of its status as a future classic.
The novel stars 16-year-old Hazel Lancaster, who for the last three years has been living with Stage IV thyroidal cancer. Despite her terminal diagnosis, she was the recipient of an experimental (and fictional) drug that shrunk her tumors and has prolonged her life. She walks with an oxygen tank and a tube inserted into her nose to help her breathe.
In case you worry that this will be a four-hankie, Nicholas Sparks-style sapfest, Hazel’s self-awareness will quickly dispel that notion (though you should still keep the hankies). Hazel is a wonderful narrator because she knows all the customary expectations of someone Living With Cancer—and she enjoys deconstructing them even as she is forced to endure them.
Hazel’s favorite book, one that she never talks about because “advertising it would feel like a betrayal,” is An Imperial Affliction, by a little-known author named Peter Van Houten. It is about a young girl living with cancer, but it is not a cancer book, because in Hazel’s words:
“. . . cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy.”
Van Houten’s narrator cuts through all of that, speaking directly to Hazel about the reality of cancer in ways that no other text has. The book ends mid-sentence, presumably suggesting the girl’s death but leaving many plot strands unresolved.
During one of her support group meetings, Hazel meets Augustus Waters, a handsome, loquacious boy whose own cancer has cost him his leg. The attraction is immediate and many pages of charmingly awkward flirting follow, but Hazel, fearing her illness is a grenade that will ruin anyone in its blast range, resists his advances.
Augustus, who already has lost one girlfriend to cancer, does not care, and devises an elaborate plan for Hazel to meet her literary idol in Amsterdam so her lingering questions about her favorite novel can be answered.
Their globetrotting adventure is the real “plot” of the book, and admittedly, it is its least affecting. The author Van Houten as a character is much more broadly drawn than Hazel or Augustus, and so any plot machinations that conspire to put him in a room with them seem like inconsequential time-fillers until the couple can come back into focus.
Augustus and Hazel’s relationship forms the heart of the book, and their scene following their first encounter with Van Houten is maybe the best of its kind that I’ve read in many years in a book aimed at teenagers.
Mr. Green’s empathetic portrayals have been a hallmark of all his fiction, but Hazel and Augustus are his two best creations. Deeply thoughtful and hyper-literate, these are characters who say and write things like, “[He] did not die after a lengthy battle with cancer. He died after a lengthy battle with human consciousness, a victim—as you will be—of the universe’s need to make and unmake all that is possible.” Pretty heady stuff coming out of anyone else’s mouth, but somehow you buy it coming from them.
Using Hazel’s criteria, The Fault in Our Stars is not a cancer book. Cancer hangs over every page, of course, and nobody reading it will be surprised where the second half goes, but it is not a book about cancer or illness or death. It is about life: the things and people who make it worth living—all of which the jaded Hazel sitting in Support Group would roll her eyes at, even as she knows to her core how true they are.