I finished John Green’s masterful new novel The Fault in Our Stars on Friday. I’ve been thinking about it pretty consistently ever since. TFiOS has been one of the most highly anticipated books on my to-read list. I read Green’s Looking For Alaska with my book club last year, and I loved how raw and honest his voice was. I’d been hearing nothing but positive buzz about his newest book (lots of it from students and Green’s own twitter ), so I pre-ordered a copy.
The Fault in Our Stars is a book about two young people, Hazel and Augustus, who have cancer. Hazel is being kept alive by a miracle drug that prevents her terminal cancer from being, well, terminal. Augustus is in remission. They meet at a support group. The novel tells the story of their relationship, from their “meet cute” (he thinks she looks like his ex-girlfriend), to Hazel’s reluctance to become emotionally and romantically involved (she doesn’t want to hurt him if/when she dies) to meeting their shared favorite author in Amsterdam (because Augustus has been granted a cancer kid wish).
Here’s what I loved about TFiOS:
–It’s a book about cancer, but it’s not a Cancer Book. Green is careful to make this distinction often with Hazel–she is a kid who has cancer, not a Cancer Kid. He regularly mocks the traditional cancer narrative of other authors (kind-hearted, brave cancer patient shows the world how to live). Hazel and Augustus were not their disease, they were characters who had a disease. Too often, authors (particularly those writing for a younger audience) feel the need to heap on the melodrama. Green is careful not to do this (too often–it is still a book about kids with cancer, after all).
–It’s smart. One of the things I loved about Looking for Alaska is Green’s intelligence. He doesn’t dumb down his references–he writes for the smart kid. If you’re not the smart kid, he encourages you to become the smart kid–to look up the things he’s talking about. The title itself is taken from Brutus’ big exchange with Cassius in Julius Caesar, a personal favorite of mine. Green teases just enough of it to make the reader curious about the origins of the phrase. Hazel and Augustus (or Gus, as she ends up calling him), speak like articulate teenagers because they are articulate teenagers, a group it’s nice to see represented in pop culture. They share a favorite book and a favorite author and they talk about reading and its impact on their lives. And that’s nice.
–I cared about these characters deeply. Probably because they didn’t become stereotypical, two dimensional characters, Hazel and Gus were characters I rooted for and characters I mourned with. They were characters whose world I was glad to inhabit, a real treat in any novel. I wanted to watch America’s Next Top Model with Hazel and I wanted to philosophize with Augustus. Green made them real.
–Green is really a beautiful writer. I think I’ve said this before, but I love writers whose prose sounds like poetry. Green is able to do that wonderfully. The exchanges between Augustus and Hazel are lovely, as are Hazel’s description of the world around her. What’s even better, Green’s language is beautiful and still appropriate for his teenage intended audience. He isn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he’s also not writing for Jazz Age critics. His voice, audience and subject match perfectly.
Of course there were things I didn’t love so much. I will admit that when I first finished The Fault in Our Stars, I didn’t want to think about it critically–it was too haunting and too beautiful for that. I didn’t want to put into words the things that I quibbled with. So I think I won’t. I was planning on a fully rounded review, but even as I write this the small negatives seem so insignificant compared to the overwhelming positives of the novel. It seems so petty to focus on the very few things I didn’t like when I liked so much about the book.
The Fault in Our Stars is firmly rooted in YA, but its appeal is so much wider than that. I’ve already lent my copy to two students (In a week! They’re flying through it), and I have a waiting list five names long. But grown up readers would be wise to grab a copy too. It’s the rare novel that reminds you of humanity’s fragility and immortality at the same time.