The Fault in Our Stars by John Green has been on my mental TBR list for a while, mostly thanks to the glowing reviews I’ve seen of it around the book blogosphere. (Note: my mental TBR list is not to be confused with my actual TBR list, which I rarely look at and almost never actual read a book from. ;-)) The fact that this book is about two cancer-stricken teens actual drove me to it, not away from it. Apparently I have an predilection for sad stories about terminal illnesses. (I still remember reading Lurlene McDaniel’s Six Months to Live as a young teen.) The Fault in Our Stars is full of pathos, but it’s far from what I’d call an overly sentimental read. Well, it’s far from overly sentimental, except. . .except “the universe is not a wish-granting factory,” and life’s just sad sometimes.
Warning: What follows most definitely qualifies as a spoiler-filled review, so stop reading now if you plan to read this book, and pick back up in the last paragraph in which I give several caveats.
The Fault in Our Stars is the story of Hazel and Augustus, two teens who meet in a Cancer Kid support group and create their own indomitable, two-member team against the whole Cancer Kid life they’ve been given. Hazel’s cancer began in her thyroid and metastasized to her lungs; Augustus has osteosarcoma and is living with a prosthetic leg. They find solace in their love for and understanding of each other’s situations. Of course, they would never say it that way: they would just consider themselves to be two teenagers madly in love with each other, cancer or no cancer. What moves the plot along is Hazel’s obsession with a particular book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten. Van Houten is a reclusive Dutch author whom Hazel has attempted to contact countless times. Augustus manages to do what Hazel has been unable to do, though, and soon he and Hazel (along with Hazel’s mom) are off to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten. Their trip is financed by one of those wish-giving organizations for kids with terminal illnesses, and Augustus “spends” his wish on Hazel. Van Houten turns out to be a despicable alcoholic, but for Augustus and Hazel, it is still the trip of a lifetime. Immediately after the trip, Hazel learns that Augustus’s cancer has returned with a vengeance (he actually knew it on the trip but didn’t tell her). The last one-third of the novel is about Augustus’s decline and how Hazel handles it.
Man, this is a sad, sad book.
Here’s the thing: this book is funny, poignant, and chock-full of pathos. John Green has some amazing insight into sick teenagers and how they might think about things. Hazel and Augustus are certainly not lightweights, neither in terms of intelligence nor the articulation of their thoughts, dreams, and desires. Hazel is full of angst over her own mortality, but not for self-centered reasons; she’s worried about how her death will affect those who love her:
“I’m like. Like. I’m like a grenade, Mom. I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?”
. . .
“I’m a grenade,” I said again. “I just want to stay away from people and read books and think and be with you guys because there’s nothing I can do about hurting you; you’re too invested, so just please let me do that, okay? I’m not depressed. I don’t need to get out more. And I can’t be a regular teenager, because I’m a grenade.” (99)
I hated hurting him. Most of the time, I could forget about it, but the inexorable truth is this: They might be glad to have me around, but I was the alpha and omega of my parents’ suffering. (116)
Augustus is the near-perfect blend of adolescent bravado tempered with the complete conviction of his own mortality. He is handsome and athletic and smart, and he adores Hazel (whom he always calls Hazel Grace, not just plain Hazel). This is how he introduces himself at Support Group:
“Oh, I’m grand.” Augustus Waters smiled with a corner of his mouth. “I’m on a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend.” (11)
Of course, he knows better–or at least, he knows that he might be in the 30% that does not survive osteosarcoma, but he doesn’t allow that to consume him. He lives his life.
There are so many, many things to commend this book to mature readers. However, on the flip side, discerning readers will want to know that it is also full of profanity. (I can never quite figure this out: do teenagers really talk this way? The ones I know don’t. Granted, I’m a resident of the Bible Belt, and most of the teens I know are churchgoers or were at least taught to “know better.”) There are also quite a few references to s**, and in fact, there is one s** scene. It’s not terribly graphic, but there is absolutely no doubt about what happens. If you don’t mind these two elements (both of which are usually deal-breakers for me, but for some reason I really wanted to know how things turn out for Hazel Grace and Gus), this is a book that raises a lot of questions in a very thoughtful, even eloquent way. Naturally, Hazel and Augustus talk a lot about mortality, and they express their opinions about What It All Means. From a literary standpoint, I give this book a Highly Recommended. However, please do not take my recommendation as a stamp of moral approval. Certainly, this one begs discussing. (If you’re interested in any of these issues, you might find this FAQ page from John Green’s website helpful.)