Published by Dutton Children's Books on 10th January 2012
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
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Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 13, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs... for now.
Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.
Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.
John Green has become, quickly and without warning, an inescapable presence in my reading world. Ever since the release of The Fault in Our Stars, the man seems to be every which way that I turn. Not a day goes by in which I’m not seeing him somewhere, with one fellow reader or another singing praises about the greatness that is Green and his novels in various corners of the internet 24/7. And from what I’ve seen, the recognition has not been given without merit. Green appears to be a very down-to-earth, relatable sort of fellow, one who will act a little crazy sometimes and have a good laugh at his own expense every once in a while. I like that.
And when it comes to his craft, I think that, for the most part, he lives up to all of the hype. Which is a good thing, because I had ridiculously high expectations when I started this book. It appears that every person whom I associate with on Goodreads has read The Fault in Our Stars, and every one of them seems to adore it. After one of my close friends picked it up and was left a sniveling wreck by the final page, I knew that my time to take the journey had, at long last, come.
And what was my experience with this relatively short and unassuming piece of YA literature, a book placed on a pedestal so high by my peers that the notion of me not liking it seemed impossible?
Well, it almost comes as a relief to be able to tell you that I enjoyed my first Green novel a great deal. As much as I’d like to, I can’t say that I love this book, hence the lack of a fifth star, but I can state with confidence that it did a thoroughly admirable job in living up to all of the hype.
Before I get to the review proper, I will say this: No, I did not cry. I’ll admit that I was hoping to. Plenty of books have made me emotional (I wouldn’t be a real reader if none did), but only one has ever actually made me shed tears. I was hoping that The Fault in Our Stars would be the second to do so, if only because I wanted the story to be as emotionally resonating for me as it has been for others, but, alas, this was not meant to be. I do not say this in order to criticize Green’s storytelling or to make it out to be less than it truly is. I mention it simply to because I know that many reviewers like to admit to their tears, or lack thereof, in order to explain their attitude towards the book as a whole.
Now, let’s move on to the important stuff. The book’s biggest strength lies in its characters and the interplay between them. Hazel and Augustus are both beautifully realized, and their relationship is easily one of the best that I’ve read in a YA novel in years.
Hazel is everything that most female, teenage protagonists/narrators are not, and she stands as a paragon of well-written and effective characterization amongst the endless number of Mary Sues that infest teen-centric literature today. I find it rather unfortunate that a man appears to be more capable at telling a story from a female point of view than most women writers are today, but it stands as a testament to Green’s talent that he is able to create such a powerful personality despite the differences in position between himself and his creation. Hazel is at turns funny and acidic, sweet and gloomy, optimistic and bitter. Her attitude towards her condition and all that comes with it is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and she reacts to it all in a way that simply feels real.
Augustus, meanwhile, is an interesting character because he is the kind of person that I normally despise. He’s gorgeous. He’s witty. He’s deep. He’s quirky. I hate male characters like this because they are always way too perfect. They make me feel inadequate and, I’ll admit it, jealous. It’s the same sort of response that I have when I have to listen to my female friends talk incessantly about how utterly amazing and flawless they find their favorite celebrities to be. Instead of coming across as enormously pretentious and smug, however, Augustus manages to be nothing but sweet and charming. It’s frustrating, because I spent most of the book dearly wanting to dislike the guy, and yet I found it impossible to do so. He’s simply too sincere and too kind to be unlikable It helps that Green makes sure that Augustus is not without his faults, which become ever more apparent as the story goes along. And when I say “faults,” I don’t mean the silly, strength-dressed-as-a-weakness kind that YA authors commonly like to give their inhumanly immaculate love interests. Having your supermodel-lookalike’s only real blunder be the fact that he “cares too much” does not make him a deep or complex character. Augustus certainly threatens at times to cross into “way too perfect” territory, but he never makes the decisive step, and it makes him completely endearing.
The supporting cast, including the parents and friend Isaac, is, with one exception, as good as the central couple. Despite their status as secondary characters, Green gives them all just as much emotional depth and complexity as he does the two in the spotlight, and their presence only strengthens and compliments the interaction between Hazel and Augustus by fleshing out the world in which they live and giving it a thorough sense of realism. Their struggles are just as believable, their reactions just as understandable, and it all makes the story too ingrained in reality to be anything less than stunning.
You’ll notice that I mentioned there being a “single exception” to the uniformly great cast of characters. That single exception is the reclusive figure of Peter Van Houten, whose presence in the novel simply feels off. While his initial role in the story as a hero-turned-villain is a good one (though the reveal of his “true” nature struck me as perhaps a bit too cartoonish to be believable), his latter appearance comes across as unnecessary and unrealistic. His scenes in the last few chapters are the only ones that don’t seem to fit, and they disrupt events when they are at their most emotional and significant, marring their impact and feeling incredibly intrusive.
John Green’s writing, though occasionally too stiff and repetitive for my tastes, is fantastic as well. The way he uses his words is oftentimes breathtaking, and some portions of the novel are so perfectly structured that even the smallest details are turned into moments of real poignancy. Under his hand, a piece of information that would otherwise be completely inconsequential becomes significant and compelling, forcing you to pause and reflect on what you’ve just read. It’s truly the little things – the repeated back-and-forth banter of “okay,” for instance, or the fact that the characters at one point drink from cups featuring Winnie-the-Pooh – that make the novel so worthwhile.
This sort of penmanship meshes seamlessly with the story, which manages to balance humor and pathos in a remarkable way. Countless scenes are, despite the book’s subject matter, laugh-out-loud funny, and just as many warrant tears, or, at the very least, a good bit of emotional instability. The events that unfold, for the most part, never feel unrealistic or lazy in their construction, and they all add up to a story that is tightly cohesive and smoothly constructed. Green manages to keep things moving at a good pace, no point ever feeling rushed or sluggish, and the novel’s relatively short length, along with its author’s fluid writing, ensures that The Fault in Our Stars is an immersive experience that is easy to see through to the end.
My only real problem with Green’s storytelling is that it feels, to some degree, exploitative. I can’t help but wonder if it’s right for an author to use the very real and sobering subject of cancer in a fictional way such as this. Is his exploration of the disease in an unreal setting a good thing, acting as a means to opening an oblivious audience’s eyes to the truths of something that many would like to pretend does not exist? Or is it a cash-grab of sorts that uses the real suffering of human beings to create an easily attainable emotional bond with readers who are, more importantly, buyers? I’d like to believe that the former theory is the correct one, but I also cannot completely dismiss the latter. Some portions of the story, especially near the end, feel a bit too heavy-handed, the hardships that every single character seems to face too much, and the consequent effect is one that feels like authorial manipulation.
The Fault in Our Stars is not my usual sort of read. I typically find contemporary fiction to be rather boring and cliché-driven, and so discovering a novel in the genre that I thoroughly enjoyed is refreshing. Green is a fantastic writer and storyteller, and I see his work as a wonderful example of YA literature done right. While I can certainly understand why some would find issues with the subject matter, I firmly believe that every reader who enjoys YA needs to give this one, at the very least, a try. It’s not perfect, but it certainly comes close, and its emotional power cannot be denied. This is a book that will stick with you. This is a book that will truly make you think. And in today’s world of generic teen romance and shoddy writing, such a feat is nothing less than a minor miracle.
Bravo, Green. Bravo.