Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. Dutton Books, 2012. 318p. Grades 8-12. Realistic Fiction
Hazel Grace Lawrence, a sixteen year old living with terminal cancer, attends a cancer support group with the intention of merely appeasing her mother and her doctor. Instead, she meets the charismatic Augustus Waters, a fellow teenage cancer patient, who upends Hazel’s small, careful life and introduces her to “a roller-coaster that’s only going up.” Hazel and Gus’s ensuing romance is filled with the “big” questions about life and loss as well as the humor, poignancy, and heartache of first love.
Thoughts– Augustus Waters may be on a “roller-coaster that’s only going up,” but throughout my re-reading of The Fault in Our Stars, I was on a roller-coaster that went up, down, sideways, and maybe through a few loop-de-loops. Despite the fact that I tried very hard to maintain more of an emotional distance this time around (since I was a sobbing mess the last time I read it), I found myself just as emotionally connected, just as elated and devastated and blown away as I was the first time I met Gus and Hazel, and I think that it is due to the sheer, overwhelming quality of John Green’s writing. He’s just so GOOD. There are many individual things he does outstandingly well—characterization, voice, attention to detail, style, syntax—but this novel truly is greater than the sum of its parts. I really cared about these people, and I really believed in them, and it takes a very special writer to create that kind of immersive world.
For me, The Fault in Our Stars’ biggest strength lies in its voice—Hazel and Gus became so real to me. I know some readers will complain that they sound too mature, too mannered, but I disagree. Yes, Green sometimes has his characters use tricky vocabulary or speak in an overly grandiose fashion, but I would argue that all that high-falutin’ language is purposeful. Through Hazel’s measured, eloquent speech patterns, we see how she has grown up surrounded mostly by adults and has frequently had to be more mature than her peers. Through Gus’s grandiloquent musings, we see a boy who is striving towards something greater, who wants his life and his words to have meaning. Plus, I think the language they use shows Green’s respect for the intelligence of teens and an ear for true talk. Below are some of my favorite examples of the particularly “teen” moments in The Fault in Our Stars:
“…so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlast four of these bastards.” (5)
“I don’t know why boys expect us to like boy movies. We don’t expect them to like girl movies.” (35) I find this one especially impressive—not too many male authors could get this deep into a girl’s head.
“ ‘I am in the midst of a soliloquy! I wrote this out and memorized it and if you interrupt me I will completely screw it up’” (88)
“I hadn’t realized he’d thought about the book so much, that An Imperial Affliction mattered to Gus independently of me mattering to him.” (171)
“I was beginning to suspect that even if death didn’t get in the way, the kind of love that Augustus and I share could never last. So dawn goes down to day, the poet wrote. Nothing gold can stay.” (278)
Although he speaks with the voices of very specific teenagers, I think they are still identifiably “kids” and not adults. Even the way Hazel peppers her narration with “like” demonstrates who she is as a character—intelligent, thoughtful, but a teenager nonetheless.
My other favorite thing about this novel is the attention to detail sprinkled throughout the story. Phrases like “his posture aggressively poor” (9), “her I-can’t-make-my-daughter’s-dreams-come-true sad face” (80), “the kiss all stubble” (119), and “He looked like he was dressed for a colonial occupation of Panama, not a funeral” (271) contribute so much to creating the unique snapshot of this world. The small details Green adds to the backdrop setting and the quirks of even minor characters (the description of Hazel’s one school friend, Kristin, and the motivational signs Gus’ parents strew around their house are priceless) flesh out the story and add to the “world-building” in a more fulfilling way than many other realistic fiction novels.
I could go on and on about Green’s prose style, his use of humor, the importance of letters/e-mail to the story, the literary allusions that inform much of the novel, but I’d like to take a little space to comment on my major criticism of The Fault in Our Stars—the Van Houten subplot. I completely and totally bought the An Imperial Affliction obsession Hazel shares with Gus (the paragraph describing wanting to evangelize or hide certain books! SO. SPOT. ON.), and I was even willing to go along with the trip to Amsterdam because it had a certain element of magical realism to it (what with the Genies, the iepen confetti, and the magic of the Anne Frank house), but I rebelled at the appearance of Peter Van Houten at Gus’ funeral. To me, it felt too much like what would happen in a traditional “cancer book,” even if Van Houton is still totally unredeemed at the end. It was truly the only point where I felt the narrative being manipulated by the author, rather than just organically happening. I feel like the resolution could have been reached in a less obvious, overt way
Overall, I found this book amazing, albeit brutal. John Green is a skillful writer with a keen eye for detail and a real understanding of who not only his characters are but who his readers are as well. I do think Green’s unique voice and style speak to many teens, but I also think the appeal of his novels is not quite as universal as, say, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, simply because his stories and characters are more idiosyncratic—I think it might be more difficult for teens to imagine themselves as Hazel and Gus than as Jerry Renault. That being said, I would (and do) recommend The Fault in Our Stars to a wide range of readers, both teen and adult.