Firstly, I would like to begin this review by thanking everyone who has followed and supported this blog over its six short months of existence. This post marks my 50th review on this site and come just a few weeks after its half-birthday. In order to commemorate both of these events, I thought I would take a look at a very popular novel to see if it stands up to the hype that it has generated. I hope that you enjoy my review and I look forward to seeing what the next six months will bring.
The Fault in Our Stars was written by John Green and first published in 2012. It immediately debuted at number 1 on the New York Times Best Seller List and was later named the 2013 Teen Book of the Year at the Children’s Choice Book Awards. The story is a coming of age tale told from the perspective of a sixteen year old girl with terminal cancer as she narrates the story of her first love.
Hazel Grace Lancaster has been growing increasingly reclusive since her thyroid cancer metastasised to her lungs and her parents are concerned that she is suffering from depression. After much coaxing, they convince her to attend a cancer support group. Although Hazel is initially reluctant, it is here that she meets Augustus Waters, a seventeen year old boy who has recently lost a leg to osteosarcoma.
Hazel and Augustus begin to bond over films and their shared experiences with cancer. They also exchange their favourite books so that they can discuss them together – Augustus offering a violent video game tie-in while Hazel shares a novel about a girl with cancer. When Augustus finishes the novel and discovers that the fates of the characters are left ambiguous, the two share their mutual dissatisfaction with this ending.
Using his “Wish” with a children’s charity, Augustus surprises Hazel with tickets to Amsterdam. He has been in contact with books author and he has agreed to a meeting with them so long as they can attend in person. However, Hazel is growing concerned that their relationship is moving too fast. She knows that her illness will eventually kill her and that the closer Augustus gets to her, the more devastated he will be by her passing. How can she continue to date him when she knows that she will soon have to hurt him?
I have actually been avoiding reading this novel for some time. I mentioned a couple of times now that I don’t read contemporary fiction for pleasure (I’m a Science Fiction / Fantasy / Horror kind of gal) and I have a particular distaste for novels that glorify tragic circumstances. You’ve probably heard the term sick-lit being thrown around by critics. This refers to novels that portray terrible things – usually suicide or mental disorders – in an overly romanticised way. I’ve read a few reviews of The Fault in Our Stars that describe it as being sick-lit and, as I’m not fond of such stories myself, it put me off picking up the novel. Having now actually read Green’s novel, I’m glad to say that it’s not sick-lit. Not by a long shot.
Death is death. No matter how you try to dress it up in a novel with heroic sacrifices or promises of freedom, in reality it is ugly, cruel and undignified. I can’t say that The Fault in Our Stars portrays what it is to be a teenager with cancer in an accurate way as I have never been in that situation myself. What I can say is that it is honest with the reader. There is nothing fluffy about the aliments that the characters in the novel suffer, they are presented to the reader warts and all. Hazel is dependent on an oxygen tank that she carries at all times, Augustus is missing a leg, and Isaac has been left completely blind. The novel differs from those branded as sick-lit because it takes great lengths in presenting how agonising their conditions are and how the best that they can do is be thankful of small blessings in an attempt to not let their illness become them.
While the novel isn’t actually about the cancer, it does fuel most of the philosophical discourses that the story puts forward. While everyone thinks about death once in a while, the cancer suffers in this story know that it always hovers over them and most have developed gallows humour as a way with coping with it. This succeeds in making the novel very humorous in places but also further underlines the tragedy that Hazel will eventually succumb to her illness.
Hazel’s diagnosis affects her world view and causes her and Augustus to explore subjects such as mortality, religion, courage and the nature of existence. Augustus fears oblivion and holds onto a belief that there is capital-S Something after death but does not know what this is, while Hazel is more sceptical and hangs to a more atheistic view point. As Hazel discusses these things with other characters in the novel, the reader is also forced to confront these ideas themselves. I always love reading novels like this that offer philosophical discussion without forcing an answer on the reader. Religious belief is shown to be a comfort for some but patronising to others. The story has no agenda, it just leaves it to the reader to decide which viewpoint they feel is more convincing.
The story is deep and engrossing, keeping my attention throughout and leaving me really wanting to know how the story would resolve. While the serious chance that any of the main characters could die at any point added tension to the story, it was my curiosity about the some of the character’s motivations that really kept me reading. One particular one of note was Van Houten, the author of Hazel’s favourite novel, An Imperial Affliction. While Hazel forms an idealised image of him based on his writing, the actual man turns out to be far different than she imagined. I won’t spoil it for you here but after their first meeting I was left curious as to what had happened to make him such a way and wanted to read on purely to discover the truth.
The characters in the story provided me with my one frustration in an otherwise moving tale in that as I never felt like any of them spoke like teenagers. I’m aware that teenagers aren’t stupid – it’s a common mistake that authors make when writing young adult literature to assume that anyone who is not an adult will behave childishly. There are some instances when the characters behave like teenagers – Hazel selfishly wants to travel to Amsterdam even though she knows that her parents can’t afford it and Augustus likes nothing more than playing gory video games – but their actions do not carry over into their dialogue.
Both Hazel and Augustus talk as though they are forty year old scholars, quoting Samuel Beckett and Emily Dickinson rather than modern pop-culture. I’ve never heard a teenager in real life speaking like these two and this did irritate me a little. In a novel like Twilight, you can explain away a slightly archaic mode of speech as the character is over a hundred years old. In the case of The Fault in Our Stars, there is no reason why Augustus – an ordinary seventeen year old boy – would speak in this way. While I still found the novel sad, the dialogue prevented me from growing too attached to either of the protagonists as they never felt like real people.
Much like in An Imperial Affliction, the story also ended rather abruptly and did not tell us what happened to all of the characters. This was a little disappointing. I would love to know what became of the main characters after the story, particularly Isaac. How did he grow used to being blind and did he ever find true love like he deeply desired? Mr. Green, if you ever happen across this review please let me know, I would love to find out what became of him after the final page.
Anyhow, it’s probably time to wrap this one up. The Fault in Our Stars definitely stands up to its hype and is well worth your time. It’s an eloquent, intelligent story-line that tackles a difficult subject without making light of it in any way. While it presents the topic of teenagers with terminal illness in a thoughtful and honest way, it is also a touching love story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. My only small gripe is with the characterisation as I felt that some characters were not really written as teenagers, but don’t let this put you off reading. The Fault in Our Stars is certainly well worth your time and makes me look forward to reviewing more of Green’s novels in the near future.
The Fault in Our Stars can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk