John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars has been the subject of quite a bit of praise. The novel is over two years old now, but it appears to be more popular than ever, and not just with its young adult audience. Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Nat Wolff are set to appear in the film version, which will be released on June 6, so mark your calendars!
If you’re going into a book or movie about teenagers with cancer, well, you pretty much know that you should keep a box of tissues by your side. With the release of the film, John Green has even promoted a preparedness kit that includes packs of tissues, among other things. So going into the novel, I was prepared to cry. And I did. No surprise there.
The Fault in Our Stars follows Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old girl with cancer. Hazel has a lung tumor and a miracle drug has allowed her to keep her illness suppressed, but she’s come to accept that she doesn’t have all that much time. She uses an oxygen tank to help her breathe. Hazel isn’t necessarily depressed, but her mother thinks so. When she’s not in class at the local community college, she spends nearly all her time at home watching bad reality shows. Her mother forces her to go to a support group for children with cancer. It’s there that Hazel meets the witty and romantic Augustus Waters.
Now let me stop you right there before you judge this book based on its romantic elements. I can’t stand books and movies that are solely based on romance. The world is already full of enough young adult romance novels featuring flat, boring female lead characters and perfect male romantic interests. Fortunately, Hazel is far from flat and Augustus is far from perfect, but there will be more on that later.
Augustus, or Gus, is actually a cancer survivor who had to have one of his legs removed. He comes to support group to support his and Hazel’s friend Isaac, who is soon undergoing surgery to remove eye cancer, which will leave him blind. Hazel soon becomes of interest to him and the two seem to hit it off from there. They share witty dialogue, read each others’ favorite books, play video games together, and more.
After reading Hazel’s favorite fictional novel, which happens to be about a teenage girl with cancer, Gus decides to try to get in contact with the author, Peter Van Houten, who has moved to Amsterdam after finishing his first and only novel with a big cliffhanger ending. Van Houten hasn’t answered any of Hazel’s letters and hasn’t made any announcements about working on any new material. The two are both curious about what happens to the characters after the book ends. So Gus manages to get in contact with him and surprises Hazel with a trip to Amsterdam to meet him.
I won’t say much more about this, but I will say this is the biggest problem with the book. After reading a few John Green novels, I understand that along with typical young adult and coming-of-age elements, he often incorporates mystery and sometimes travel elements. With some reworking, The Fault in Our Stars would probably be strong enough to stand on its own without the Peter Van Houten plot. It almost feels out of place for the book. It was a plot device used to propel the story forward and to get Gus and Hazel to Amsterdam. It’s not terrible, but I’d like to think of it as a smudge on something that’s otherwise pretty great.
As for things the novel does right, the characters feel genuine. Many have argued that the characters don’t feel like teenagers at all and are rather unrealistic. I’ll agree that they’re not your typical teenagers. Both Hazel and Gus are more clever and poised than most teens. However, I’m not going to say I didn’t enjoy that about them. I would much rather read about people like Hazel and Gus than dumb-downed characters for the sake of making them more realistic. And they’re not one-dimensional either. We see multiple shades of Hazel (no pun intended) and for as perfect and optimistic and amazing as Gus may seem, we see some different sides of him throughout the book too.
Despite the book’s heavy topic, Green is able to mix in enough humor too. However, when it boils down to it, it’s still a book about teenagers with cancer. And yes, it does involve death, and it’s handled pretty well. Even though you might be crying your eyes out, you should know before even opening the book that someone is going to die. The emotional weight of knowing death is coming soon takes a toll on all the characters, and on the reader. But it’s the emptiness that comes after death that will really make you want to break down.
I will say the best thing about The Fault in Our Stars is how well it portrays cancer patients and how they see the cliches that we say. Things like “cancer perks,” things that cancer patients get simply because they’re sick, are looked down on in Hazel’s mind. Or the fact that most people who see her with her oxygen tank immediately look away because they don’t want to make her feel bad, but this just makes her feel worse. Or the idea that without pain, we wouldn’t know joy, which Hazel writes off as stupid considering the taste of broccoli in no way affects the taste of chocolate. Or the common use of the phrase “He/She fought hard” when talking about someone who died of cancer.
That’s perhaps the biggest problem Hazel and Gus bring up in the book. The idea that one has to be seen as fighting valiantly in the end. That when a loved one dies, we often glorify them for no reason and paint the picture that they fought hard and often without complaint. In reality, being terminally ill and facing something like cancer is horrifying and it sucks. Props to anyone who goes through it without complaint, but complaining and worrying and being terrified are perfectly normal, as is growing weaker. We see in several cases throughout The Fault in Our Stars that this picture that we often paint of people with cancer is often false or not completely true. Green has done a wonderful thing by allowing us to enter the mind of someone like Hazel. To see what it’s really like to live with that kind of burden and to see how other people treat her because of it. Yes, The Fault in Our Stars may be classified as a romance and it has its humor, but it really deals with the harsh realities of living with something like cancer.
And as always, Green is able to convey a nice message in the novel. Something we can see clearly on the last page, as we can in his other novels Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns. And despite the sadness that comes with a character’s death, you might find yourself smiling. Not because a dying character fought valiantly without complaint. Not because this amount of pain has made you appreciate and come to know joy. But because Hazel and Gus and friends got to share a compelling story together. And even though the fate of their lives may have been out of their hands, they at least got to choose one another.
“You don’t get to chose 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