I know I’m late to the party on this one, and John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” is now so ubiquitous that this review will serve as little more than a mere shout of praise into the void. For all Green’s novel does to upend clichés, I’m going to use one of my own: I couldn’t put this book down. Narrated by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen year old diagnosed with Stage 4 Thyroid cancer with metastatis, it’s not one for the emotionally fragile. Be warned, here’s a typical tumblr response after having read the book…
Fans are now eagerly awaiting the release of the film adaptation on June 6. There was recently a fair amount of controversy surrounding the film, specifically its tagline – ‘one sick love story’ – from those who felt this play on words was a glib and crass marketing strategy. On first reading about this online I agreed with critics that such a tagline seemed insensitive due to its source material’s serious subject matter. Yet, after having read “The Fault in Our Stars” myself, I’m not sure that this tagline doesn’t actually wholly encapsulate the tone and message of the novel: sick teens are still just teens, experiencing those same thoughts, desires and anxieties experienced by their physically healthy peers. They’re certainly confronted with their own mortality a whole lot earlier, but that doesn’t mean they want to be treated by strangers as though they’ve already got one foot in the grave. The literary paradigm of the kid with cancer as the heroic and ethereal martyr who teaches a life lesson to those left living is challenged and disproved repeatedly throughout “The Fault in Our Stars”. Instead Green writes about a cancer patient egging his ex-girlfriend’s car and smashing up a basement. He writes about cancer patients mocking their support counselors and sneaking bottles of champagne and worrying about losing their virginity. The characters are teenagers, eye-rolling, video game-playing teenagers, desperately angry about the injustice of their diagnoses and alternating rapidly from sentence to sentence between treating their medical situations with ironic humour and with utter despair. They’re not saints, nobly touching the lives of those around them. Nicholas Sparks’ “A Walk to Remember” this is not.
Nicholas Sparks writes in “A Walk to Remember”: ‘Without suffering, there’d be no compassion.’ I’m pretty sure Hazel and Augustus would take Sparks’ novel and shove it up his ass. Green writes:
‘”Without pain, how could we know joy?” This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.’
“The Fault in Our Stars” shares similarities with Jenny Downham’s “Before I Die”, (adapted to film as “Now Is Good”) which follows Tessa, a teenage leukemia patient, as she attempts to complete her bucket list. Tessa, like Hazel, doesn’t want to be defined by her diagnosis. Adam, like Augustus, helps her to live a little. Yet I found the central romance in “The Fault in Our Stars” more touching, perhaps due to the pains Green goes to in order to develop his protagonists’ individual personalities. I initially feared the romantic lead, Augustus Waters, a seventeen year old in remission from osteosarcoma, would be a thinly drawn character, too idealised to illicit any sort of real response from the reader. He initially seemed a character who existed only within the confines of a narrow literary purpose: to express attraction towards Hazel. He seemed a boy written conveniently to bring her back to life (a male Manic Pixie Dream Girl, if you will). Despite my initial misgivings, Augustus evolved into a fully-fledged character in his own right.
“The Fault in Our Stars”, according to the Daily Mail, belongs to a genre of YA “sick-lit”. Apparently disease, and other real issues faced by countless young people, are topics unsuitable for the very children and teenagers who may be affected by them. Like Jenny Downham’s “Before I Die”, “The Fault in Our Stars” refuses to patronise its young readers. The book tackles universal themes through its cancer-afflicted protagonists: the desire to feel like you’ve impacted the world in some way, the desire to live an extraordinary life. Augustus wants to be loved widely as well as deeply. His greatest fear is oblivion. Hazel wants to kiss Augustus but worries that she’s a grenade, ready to explode and hurt those closest to her. If dealing with life, death and all the stuff in between is “sick”, then all good literature should belong to this genre. Green should wear this categorisation as a badge of honour.
In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, Cassius says to Brutus: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.’
The title of Green’s novel says it all. Sometimes life is truly unfair and random and cruel. The respective fates of Hazel and Augustus and Isaac are not within their control. The fault is in their stars. Their situations are expressed by Green with compassion, sympathy and understanding, but never with moralising or condescension. Green blends the comic and the tragic and consequently creates a story which reflects the reality of everyday life.
But don’t take my word for it. Just go and read it. Okay? Okay.