Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.  Dutton Books, 2012.  318 pp.  978-0-525-47881-2.

... in which two teenagers meet at a cancer support group and deal with love, pain and loss.

The Fault in Our Stars is narrated from the point of view of Hazel, a 16-year-old girl who is slowly dying from metastatic thyroid cancer.  She spends her time attending classes at a local community college and going to a largely useless support group for teenagers with cancer.  While reluctantly attending a support group meeting one day, Hazel meets 17-year-old Augustus, a handsome and charming boy who lost a leg to osteosarcoma, which has gone into remission.  Hazel and Augustus bond over their shared experiences with cancer, and their shared love of a particular novel.  As their relationship progresses, Hazel has to consider the fact that her diagnosis is terminal, despite the fact that her death is coming slowly, and she must decide how this will ultimately affect the way she forms relationships, especially her relationship with Augustus.

I was sort of eying this book for awhile before finally buying it, and then after buying it, I waited a little while to read it.  First of all, I'm a little burnt out on YA fiction.  Secondly, the reviews I read on Amazon and other book review sites sounded like they were written by 13 year old girls, and mostly sounded like, "omg john green is the best author ever i luv him what a great book hazel and gus 4eva."  This made me a little hesitant to read the book, because with this subject matter, the author would have to really balance the dark humor and the gravity of the situation, while still keeping the book suitable for a young adult audience without insulting the reader's intelligence.  Luckily for everyone, Green does a reasonably good job of balancing all of these things.

In terms of humor, the book is probably equal parts funny and sad, though all of the humor sort of has the elephant-in-the-room lurking behind it.  In other words, all of the humor is dark cancer/death humor that tries to be witty and ironic (and generally succeeds).  The humor is a good balance for the rest of the book, which can be pretty heavy and emotional.  With a few key (important and necessary) exceptions, I didn't ever feel like the emotional scenes were too heavy, and I also didn't feel like the humor was too trivializing (more on this later).  This is not to say that this isn't a profoundly affecting book... I definitely cried about five times while reading it (I also read it in one sitting, which might have made a difference).  But if you go into a book like this expecting that you won't be sad, then you're probably not the target audience and I doubt you'd enjoy the book anyway. 

The writing quality of the book as a whole was good.  Green does a nice job at moving the plot along quickly, and the love story is nicely done, especially considering that the characters are teenagers.  He makes it clear that Hazel and Gus' love is real (and not a puppy love), but it's also believable (no Bella and Edward here, folks).  The love story was touching enough without being sappy, and felt real enough to make the ending of the story emotionally potent.  (Potently sad?  Potently happy?  What do YOU think?)

So, those are the good things about the book.  Now for the list of things I disliked, and the things that had me on the fence.

As a character, Augustus never felt 100% genuine to me.  I liked his character, and if I met him in real life, I'm sure I'd like real-Augustus, but I find it pretty unlikely that I'll ever meet a 17-year-old boy that is as self-aware, intelligent, articulate, charming, and likable as Augustus is.  He is so witty and amusing that I almost find him unbelievable.  If the characters were a bit older (say, mid-20s), I would find it a lot easier to believe, but in my experience, witty, intelligent, amusing 17-year-old guys are not also self-aware and likable.  It's a fairly minor complaint, as I did like Augustus and I liked his relationship with Hazel, but I felt like it was worth mentioning.

I also didn't really care for the parts of the story that revolved around Hazel and Gus' shared love of the fictional book An Imperial Affliction (with they refer to as AIA).  This book-within-the-book is also about a kid with cancer, and Hazel and Gus are obsessed.  Their bonding over the book and their quest to contact the book's reclusive author provide some pretty major plot points, but I mostly found those parts kind of distracting.  When they do go searching for the book's author, it provides some minor plot twists, but mostly serves as a catalyst to set other events in motion.  Toward the end, when (minor spoiler ahead) AIA's author makes a surprise visit to Hazel, that whole plotline sort of felt unnecessary and heavy-handed, and disrupted the complicated emotions of that part of the novel. 

Finally, the things that left me conflicted.  While the book was well-written and very emotionally touching, I'm not entirely certain that it brought anything new to the category of "cancer literature".  I feel like this is such an easy topic for authors... bam, immediate emotional novel!  Just add characters.  I am not sure about John Green's personal experiences, but his characters' interactions with each other feel believable without being anything particularly new.  Variations on the useless support group have been seen many times before, and the most tragic characters were the ones who weren't going to be dying anytime soon. Except for the bits revolving around tracking down AIA's elusive author, the weakest parts of the book were just before the end, after stuff happens that we can't talk about, on account of spoilers, even though I feel like this should have been the strongest part of the book.  Basically what I'm saying is that I wish this very good book had been a perfect book, and I wish it could read my mind about the things that aren't mentioned in it. 

All of these things are very minor complaints about what was, in truth, a very good book, especially considering its target audience.  This is definitely the rare YA book that I feel I could give to any adult without a trace of embarrassment or shame, and even though it's a sad book, it's not like I didn't know the sad parts were coming.  I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in unusually emotionally complex YA fiction, or anyone with an interest in fiction in general, provided they don't mind crying once or twice or five times.  I'm giving it 4 stars, for the reasons given above, though I suspect that most people would give it 5 stars... I'm just picky, with different expectations for this sort of book.

4/5 stars


  1. It's weird that cancer literature is a genre, but I guess it makes sense! It seems like cancer could be low-hanging emotional fruit for crappy authors... how could it not be sad as shit?

  2. Well, the movie 50/50 was a cancer movie, and it was pretty hilarious. I just sort of feel like the author needed to bring something new to the table... I mean, it was a really good book, but not as good as I was expecting, given the hype.

  3. This landed on a lot of book club lists. I have to read it. Thanks for the review.
    -FABR Steph@FiveAlarmBookReviews


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