Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

“You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world...but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices.”

The Fault in Our Stars is the fifth novel by YA author John Green.  Released in 2012, it was widely anticipated and soon landed on the NY Times Bestseller List.  Drawing on his experience as a chaplain at a children's hospital and his friendship with a young woman dying of cancer, Green uses this seemingly stark and simple story to ask big questions about life, death, and all of the moments in between.

The Plot:

Sixteen year old Hazel Grace Lancaster is dying.  Her Stage 4 thyroid cancer is only held in check by an experimental drug.  Since the condition of her lungs means she can't go to school, her parents force her to go to a local support group for children living with cancer.  She resents the meetings at first, but then she meets Augustus "Gus" Waters whose cancer is in remission.

There is an almost instant attraction between the two.  They begin spending more and more time together discussing movies, life, and books.  They especially bond over Hazel's favorite book (about a young girl also dying of cancer) and spend time discussing what might have happened after the book ended.  But even as their relationship deepens, Hazel feels that she must pull away.  She is still dying and the last thing she wants to do is to cause Gus pain.  As circumstances change, both Gus and Hazel must decide if their love is worth the pain that will inevitably come.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

John Green's name has been on the edges of my reading radar for awhile.  It is no secret that he is a bit of a god to the nerds of the world (whom he calls "nerdfighters").  I've enjoyed hearing his views on literature, and watching the "Crash Course" videos he created with his brother, Hank.  But until now, I had never read any of his works.

I feel like one of the hallmarks of a good book is that you are still thinking about it days, even weeks after you finish reading it.  And that certainly happened to me with this one.  This is not just a teen romance story, or even just a story about kids with cancer.  This book tackles really big philosophical subjects.  One of the ones that stuck out to me was the idea of life after death, and not just in the spiritual heaven/hell sense.  Hazel claims that she does not believe in any kind of afterlife, and yet she is obsessed with knowing what happens to the characters in her her favorite book after the protagonist dies.  She is certain that things continued to happen to them and that there was some kind of closure, even though the author insists there isn't.  And Gus is obsessed with being a hero, with leaving some kind of mark on the world.  To me, this exemplifies an inherent need we humans have to still matter after we are gone.  We need to feel as if life won't stop, as if people won't forget us.  Even those who claim to not believe in life after death still feel a need to be connected to this world even after we have left it.

The flip side of this is that if life doesn't stop and people don't forget us, the pain doesn't stop either.  At first, Hazel is afraid to allow herself to fall in love with Gus.  She knows that she is terminal.  She knows that her death will hurt the people she leaves behind.  The last thing she wants to do is to get so close to Gus that his life is shattered by her death.  But Gus convinces her to let that go.  He lets her know that his love for her is bigger than the pain he would feel at her death.  Even if we don't die young, or die under tragic circumstances, the people we leave behind will still feel pain.  We are each a "grenade" as Hazel terms it, and we will inevitably shatter the lives of those around us and in turn be shattered by them.  But isn't the time we get with those we love more precious than any pain that might come after?  Isn't it better to have experienced love and friendship, even if it means the loss of it will hurt?  Again, Green asks a lot of big questions and leaves us to answer them for ourselves.

I know that all of this makes it sound like this is a heavy, philosophical, slow-moving story.  It isn't.  Green injects a lot of humor into the story and tells it in an almost laid back attitude.  While his teenage characters are very intelligent (refreshing, no?), they are also typical teens in many ways.  They argue with their parents, they play video games, they watch America's Top Model, they read graphic novels.  None of this philosophizing comes while they sit around the fire drinking brandy and smoking cigars.  It comes in an easy, casual manner that makes all of it much more approachable.

If you have been looking for a place to start in John Green novels, or YA lit in general, this is a good one.  It is smart, witty, and approachable.  It will certainly leave you with all kinds of questions, and feelings.  I have no trouble recommending it, and look forward to reading it again.

The Movie:

A film adaptation is set to be released in June of this year.  It will star Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Willem Dafoe.               


hopeinbrazil said...

I've read several reviews of this book but none of them made me want to read it as much as yours. I look forward to finding it.

bookwormans said...

Thanks! I think that many reviewers (and readers)are so focused on the book's main points (like the teen romance and the cancer) that they can overlook some of the more interesting aspects. The book has lots of little gems that are worth digging for.