The Fault in Our Stars was lent to me by a dear friend who is 12 and whom I love very much. It’s a favorite of hers and she wanted to share it with me, which automatically made me favorably inclined toward the book, because of how I feel about her.
On the other hand it created kind of a tricky situation, because what if I didn’t like it? That was certainly possible—I don’t think it would be considered a children’s book, but I gather it’s kind of an older kid/younger adult book, and I didn’t know if something aimed for that audience would appeal to me at all. Would I feel obligated to pretend to like it whether I did or not?
Probably not. I remember I had a girlfriend long ago whom I liked quite a bit. During our time together, she got me two books as gifts. The first I already had. The second didn’t look too promising, but I gave it a more than fair chance by reading the whole thing, and concluded that of all the books I had ever read, it was either the one I enjoyed the least, or certainly very close to it. And I didn’t lie about it; I was quite open with her about the fact that basically she had swung and missed twice.
So knowing me, if I hated this book I probably would say so. At most I might choose my words carefully or fudge a little bit, but I doubt I’d pretend to have liked it.
But I was certainly hoping to like it, because I knew she really wanted me to, and I always much prefer whatever makes her happy. Plus she has always been receptive to books and movies and such that I’ve shared with her. Even if they aren’t greatly appealing to her, she at least finds some good in them, and likes the fact that sharing them is a way we can connect, which makes me feel good.
The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of a teen romance between Hazel and Gus, written in the first person from Hazel’s perspective. Hazel and Gus are both cancer “survivors,” to use today’s preferred euphemism. Gus, though, is likely to survive longer, as his cancer is in remission, while Hazel’s cancer is being temporarily kept at bay by some experimental drug but is expected to resume its job of killing her in the short-to-intermediate future, though exactly when is of course unpredictable.
OK, first thing: In what way is this a book for a younger readership rather than for adults in general? If I had never been told it was aimed primarily at young people, would I have noticed any difference between this and other books I’ve read that would have allowed me to infer that?
Well, certainly the subject matter is not kid stuff. It deals with about as grave a subject as you could want. And it really doesn’t sugarcoat that topic, give it an artificially happy ending, etc. Cancer’s a major downer in life, and it’s a major downer in this book. So that isn’t it.
The two main characters, and a decent portion of the lesser characters, are teenagers. So maybe that’s an indication of the intended audience, since all else being equal, readers are most likely to be drawn in by a story about people like themselves, people they can most easily identify with.
But that’s far from an absolute rule. There are plenty of adult books with kids as the main characters, and plenty of kid books with adults as the main characters. So that’s a factor, but not all that big a factor.
I think if I had to put my finger on something that felt different about this book compared to most books I’ve read—or say most novels I’ve read—it’s more the style than the substance.
There’s a certain simplicity to this book. And I don’t mean that necessarily in a bad way. I don’t mean that you feel talked down to in this book if you’re an adult. And I certainly don’t mean it’s poorly written. Actually of all the books I’ve read in recent years, stylistically this book most reminds me of Pay It Forward (and I don’t even know offhand if that’s considered in the “young adult” genre, though I would think it very well may be), but, in my opinion at least, it’s much more competently written than that book.
I think that it’s more that it lacks certain things that are fairly common in adult fiction, and especially common in “serious” adult fiction (and especially, especially common—to a ludicrous degree, some might say—in “postmodern,” “serious” adult fiction).
For example, pretty much everything here is told in chronological order, or at least in the order that makes it easiest to understand. Furthermore, you’re not given a bunch of attention-grabbing material early that’s difficult or impossible to understand due to lack of context, where you then spend the rest of the book filling in the picture (partly anyway) as more information is gradually dribbled out, making it—hopefully—more understandable retroactively.
There are very few if any foreign words and phrases, or words one would need to look up in a dictionary, or obscure metaphors. There aren’t a lot of unusually long sentences or sentences of an unusually complex structure, where you have to read carefully and slowly to avoid getting confused.
There aren’t multi-page long descriptive passages. The author doesn’t give us a hundred pages about all the minutiae of cancer (the way Melville digresses in Moby Dick to give us more than 99% of readers would ever care to know about whaling, or Hugo embeds a virtual dissertation about the history of Parisian architecture in Notre Dame de Paris).
The author isn’t playing a game or creating a mystery. At no point is the reader left saying “I’ve really lost track of what the heck is going on; I hope it becomes clearer as I go along.” No, it’s pretty much all very straightforward: This happened, then this happened, then this happened. You can always follow the story, it always makes sense who’s doing what and why.
There are probably other complexities I haven’t articulated here that this book lacks, because I feel like there are novels I’ve read that didn’t have any of what I’ve mentioned so far that still seemed more clearly aimed at adults. So some of the factors are probably too subtle for me to be consciously aware of.
But anyway, is it good or bad (for me as a reader) that it’s written in what I’m calling a simple style?
My answer is mixed. But let it be said that I’ve long been something of a skeptic about “difficult” literature. I tend to think that half or more of the things that make a novel take an extra effort to get through are superfluous and pointless. They’re the kinds of things that seem to be more about calling attention to the cleverness of the author, or impressing folks in a creative writing graduate program, or tricking readers in an “Emperor’s New Clothes” way into thinking “This is so obscure and so over my head that it must be extraordinarily deep!”
But I won’t go too far in that direction. After all, “half or more” isn’t “all.” There are times that a challenging book (or movie or anything else) is justifiably challenging. Not everything that’s valuable to express in life can be conveyed in a straightforward way with simple vocabulary that a teenager could follow without strain.
So there’s a place for “difficult” books, and I think my life as a reader would be decidedly less edifying if I never had to struggle through frustration or confusion when I read.
But on the whole, I rather welcomed reading a book that was such a breeze to get through. I could pick this book up at any time and read fifty or a hundred pages, and not feel fatigued at all. It held my interest throughout, and it’s an “easy” read.
Again, though, I’m referring to the structure and not the subject matter as “simple.” Substantively the book has plenty of depth. It gives one a lot to think about. Also, if you open yourself up emotionally to it—which I certainly try to do when I read—there are parts that aren’t “easy” at all. At a certain level, it’s a genuinely depressing book—probably not surprising, given that it’s about teenagers with cancer.
Often one of the reasons I most want to write about a book as soon as possible after reading it—and why I sometimes call these “book essays” rather than “book reviews”—isn’t so much to “review” it as to take the opportunity to articulate some of what it made me think about, before those thoughts fade.
And that’s what I want to do now, because this is indeed a thought-provoking book. It brings a lot of things to mind—or at least it did for me—that one can then run with as far as one is inclined to. You can make the case that that’s really due more to the subject matter than to the book—i.e., if I had instead been handed five or ten flash cards with key topics or ideas on them and been told, “Here, muse on these,” maybe I would have thought them through almost as much, and benefited almost as much, as from reading this book. I don’t know. But at least we can say that one important advantage of the book’s simple structure is that these issues aren’t obscured. It’s not one of those books where you’re so exhausted by trying to keep up with the author’s tricks that you don’t have enough brain cells left to thoroughly reflect on what it is you just read.
I’ll have a little bit to say about certain of the specifics in the book later, but for now I want to address some of the general ideas it brought to mind for me.
One, cancer sucks ass.
It’s not just the decrease in the length of life, as important as that is, but the often drastic decrease in the quality of life.
Granted, important medical advances have been made in the managing of symptoms and pain and such, but it can still be a truly miserable experience to have cancer.
Pain medication specifically is still very limited. There simply is no magic pill that takes you from being in excruciating pain to feeling totally normal and painless. What the medication does is take some of the edge off the pain so that it’s still bad and distracting and “I really wish this would go away,” but it’s no longer horrible and intolerable and “I’d rather be dead than continue like this.”
The stronger stuff that lessens the pain to a greater degree does so at a high cost. As someone once described dilaudid to me, “It’s not so much that you don’t have the pain anymore, as that you don’t care.” It puts you in such a daze that you’re like a zombie or the most wasted of stoners (most illegal narcotics are painkillers after all), disconnected not only from your pain but from most everything in life, barely able to function.
But then beyond the issue of pain are the alterations in your body and what it can and can’t do.
Hazel’s lungs are shot, so she’s hooked up to an oxygen machine, and will be for whatever limited time she has left. A large number of activities that the rest of us take for granted—especially the rest of us that are her age—are now unthinkable for her. Gus has had a leg removed. Their friend Isaac had first one and later the other eye removed, rendering him blind for life.
So, yes, with cancer you might die five or twenty of fifty years before you otherwise would have, but in addition there’s a good chance a decent portion of the time you’re still alive you might wish you weren’t.
Two, cancer dominates how a person is perceived. Once you have cancer, you lose some of your individuality—in the eyes of others, that is—and forever become a person with cancer first and foremost.
It’s kind of like being a Holocaust survivor, or non-survivor for that matter. You may have lived fifty years before the Nazis snatched you, and in that time you may have done countless good and bad things, had relationships, a career, a myriad of interests, etc., but in the eyes of the world your identity will forever be that of a Holocaust victim over all else, just part of an undifferentiated mass of sufferers.
I suppose that’s true of any major disease or disability. The first thing most people think about a blind guy is that he’s a blind guy, or about someone with muscular dystrophy that she has muscular dystrophy.
And it even extends beyond physical disabilities. When I volunteered at a maximum security prison for a few years, I remember the guys making the point that the public will always perceive them according to the crime for which they were convicted, even though “Some of these guys were only criminals for five minutes,” as my friend Jerry once put it. That is, of all the hundreds or thousands of things there are about a given individual that one could focus on, that could make up one’s overall picture of who a person is and what they’re all about, for the public they all fade from view with the exception of the one dominant perception that he’s a murderer, or rapist, or drunk driver, or what have you.
But I think cancer still has a certain negative mystique that makes having it even more overwhelming in how one’s thought of than just about anything else. Even in a book like this where you spend enough time with a few individuals to get to know a fair amount about them, you’re always conscious of their cancer.
For that matter, even the auxiliary characters’ identities are dominated by their relation to cancer. This person is the “mother of someone with cancer,” that person is the “father of someone with cancer,” this other person is the “leader of a support group for people who have cancer,” etc.
I was conscious of it as I wrote the one paragraph description of the book above. I was being purposely contrary when I noted the teen romance element of the book before the cancer element. Actually, the cancer element thoroughly dominates everything else in the story. This is a book about kids dying of cancer first and foremost, with the love story or anything else being secondary at best.
Three, the extent to which the length of a life saddens us as too short is relative to normality and expectations.
That is, dying teenagers are horribly sad to contemplate because we think of 70 or 80 or 90 as being more of a normal life span for a person. It feels like if you’re condemned to die decades earlier, that your life has barely started, that all your potential will be left tragically unrealized.
But when an 88 year old has a heart attack and keels over and dies, while there’s some degree of grieving, there’s not that same sense of lost potential. No one says, “The poor guy’s life was over before it ever really started. Think what he could have achieved if only he’d lived to 300. God’s purposes are inscrutable when he takes someone from us before his time.” No, people may be sad, but they console each other with the reminder that after all, he lived a good, long life.
Imagine instead that our species had a natural life span of 15. Then these same teenagers could lead these same lives, and it wouldn’t be perceived anywhere near as negatively (aside from the aforementioned diminution in the quality of life, though that too is relative in the same way: if most people had twice as much pain and suffering in their life as the average cancer patient, then we wouldn’t feel the way we do about the quality of life of people with cancer).
Same life, different context. Is 16 or 18 or 20 years tragically, depressingly short for a life? Depends on the norm you’re comparing it to.
Though it’s not just perceptions, but the institutions and such that are based on our perceptions. Social Security, for instance, kicks in when you’re in your 60s. It wouldn’t if the typical human life span was 25 years or 25,000 years.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, perhaps it’s that we shouldn’t treat life as if your early and middle adulthood are your actual life, with everything before that being preparation and anticipation, and everything after that being reflection and memory. When you think of it that way, then naturally having a life cut off in the preparation and anticipation stage is horrible to even contemplate (whereas a life that ends in the reflection and memory stage seems much more acceptable). In reality, while preparation, and for that matter reflection, are valuable and have their place, the present always matters too.
When you raise a child, for instance, yes, it matters what impact you have on the way that child develops into an adult. But it shouldn’t be all about “I want my child to be this, this, and this when they’re grown up, so I’m doing this, this, and this toward them now.” Every moment of their current life—their happiness, their pain, their behavior toward others, whatever—matters just as much as the moments you’re preparing them for.
Hazel and Gus are most alive when they’re living in the moment, when they’re focused on their current love, excitement, even anger or what have you, than when they’re focused on anticipating further suffering and death, as hard as it can be in their shoes ever to put the cancer out of their minds.
Whether you live to be ten or a hundred and ten, or substantially less or substantially more than the average person, there’s a value in living in the present and not worrying so much about whether your life as a whole is too short in some sense. There’s something to be said for taking the attitude that it’s not too short or too long; it just is the length it is, and you need to make the most of it.
Four, though I’ve kind of alluded to this already, a kid dying of cancer is not just horrific for the kid dying of cancer, but for everyone in his or her circle, especially the immediate family.
I’ve heard it said by multiple people that the hardest thing to endure, the hardest thing to get over, is the death of a child.
Hazel notes in passing that her father often cries now. The fact that it can be mentioned casually as kind of a normal occurrence is telling in itself. Given the problem most men have with crying, and given that presumably he least wants to cry in front of Hazel so as not to make her feel even worse about the effects her cancer is having on others, the fact that he breaks down frequently in her presence indicates just how devastating an impact this is all having on him.
Her parents assure her at one point that of course on balance they’ve experienced more joy than pain because of her. Her father jokes that if she really was more trouble than she’s worth to them, then they’d simply toss her out on the street.
Is that true that having her as their daughter has been a net emotional positive for them, or is that just one of those things you’re supposed to say because admitting otherwise would be unthinkable?
I could go either way on that. It probably depends on exactly how the claim is interpreted. But I lean more toward it being a polite lie you tell your child (and yourself).
The sense in which it’s true is that once you’re as emotionally invested as a parent is in a child, even if there were a way to divest oneself of that connection one almost never would. So, yes, staying attached to your child is the preferred choice over tossing them out in the street. Even more so than in almost all marriages, you’re committed “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”
But there’s a difference between saying that continuing your relationship with your child who has cancer is better than not continuing that relationship, versus saying that you’re getting more good than bad out of continuing that relationship. Really it’s just the better of two awful choices, both of which arguably involve more bad than good.
Another way to interpret the question is to ask whether parents would prefer never having had the child in the first place. Here there’s almost as much pressure for them to insist not, but I think the sincere answer is almost certainly yes.
No one wants to tell their child they wish he or she had never been born. Again, because once the child exists you have a commitment, and you want to honor that commitment. But really the question isn’t asking if you want to violate that commitment; it’s asking about a situation where the commitment never commenced.
It’s basically the same question as if you asked people before they had a child whether or not they’d choose to have a child if they knew in advance that the child would get cancer and die in his or her teens and suffer horribly in the process. The difference is that presented that way, people are far more likely to answer sincerely and say that they’d opt not to have the child in those circumstances.
Caring for a very, very sick child and knowing that they’re going to die young is extremely taxing on one’s time, money, and emotions. It’s not a situation anyone in their right mind would want to be in. Articulating that is typically unwise due to its potential to make the child feel even worse, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Five, when I’m honest with myself, I have serious doubts I could have some kind of a romantic or sexual relationship with someone who is as damaged as the cancer patients in this book.
Now I’ll rush to clarify that in multiple ways. I’m not talking about an already existing relationship. If it’s my spouse or someone I’m in love with, and they’re disfigured or lose a limb or get cancer (or get old and decrepit, for that matter), I’m not saying I would fall out of love with them and bail.
Furthermore, I’m not talking about relationships that aren’t romantic or sexual. Like a lot of people I’m probably uncomfortable to a certain degree around disabled people or people with terrible diseases or what have you, but that’s a superficial, temporary thing, and after that initial period I suppose I’m as good as the average person at looking past that and connecting with someone like that as a friend. I might like some of the people with cancer in this book if I were to meet them, for instance.
Nor do I think it’s somehow “gross” when people like the cancer sufferers in this book are portrayed as sexual beings, as dating, as falling in love, etc. If they can see themselves that way and find willing partners, I applaud them.
I’m just saying that for me, I can imagine myself having a lot of positive feelings for seriously disabled people and people dying of cancer, but one of those is not being hot for them. If I meet someone who just had a leg amputated, or has some rare eye cancer that required having both eyes removed, or who can’t walk five feet without being attached to a big oxygen tank and is probably going to be dead within a few months or years, I don’t think I’m going to be hitting on that person or wondering how I can get her to date me.
And I’m not hypocritical about it. I feel the same way if it’s me. Heck, if I have a bad cold and my nose is running, I certainly don’t feel like a sexual being. I can only imagine if some disease messed me up a lot more than that. I would never expect in such circumstances to be perceived as a potential mate or sex partner. I would just focus on other things, other relationships, other forms of intimacy.
I feel self-conscious saying that, though, like people will think it speaks ill of me. But so be it. I can’t see myself falling in love with someone badly disfigured by leprosy, and I can’t see myself ever being in a situation with someone where I say, “I really want to have sex with you; what’s the most convenient way to do it so your colostomy bag isn’t in the way?” Some things just kill the mood.
But I found that that’s where my mind often went in reading the love story parts of the book, the flirting, the sexual explorations (which is not something depicted in any detail—it’s a very tame book in that regard). Again, I’m happy for them and all, and I’m pretty sure that for most kinds of relationships I could look past the bad stuff and connect with the person inside and potentially even love such a person. But a romantic or sexual kind of love? I seriously, seriously doubt it.
(At least that’s the way I feel when it’s hypothetical. Now watch me make a liar out of myself by falling madly in love with some female version of Stephen Hawking.)
Anyway, those are some of the general issues the book provoked me to think about. Now I want to comment on some more specific aspects of the book.
I thought on the whole it was fairly well written. The vivid depictions of the cancer suffering are a bit more effective than the love story portions, but the latter are not particularly weak.
The dialogue, and Hazel’s writing—since it’s told by her in the first person—didn’t always feel real to me. It struck me at times like more the language of a middle-aged novelist than a teenager. A little too much clever word play and metaphors and amateur philosophy and such. But I may be wrong about that. Maybe it’s more accurate in that respect than I realize. In any case, I was more conscious of the language seeming a bit off to me early; once I got very far into the book I had adjusted and it didn’t bother me.
The title is taken from Shakespeare’s line, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” from Julius Caesar. The way I interpret it is that whereas the Shakespeare quotation is commonly understood as telling us that we’re responsible for our own lives and our own failings, and that we ought not blame things instead on fate, really a lot of what happens to us in life is indeed out of our control. Some of us—like kids who contract cancer—are dealt unusually shitty hands. Yes, you have some control over how you play even a bad hand, but it’s not like you can just will yourself to have whatever life you want. Your life won’t be fully determined by factors beyond your control that have been imposed on you, but it’ll certainly be constrained by them.
There’s an author’s note at the beginning of the book, saying that while it’s always tempting to speculate what from the author’s real life might resemble the story in a book or might have inspired a book, he can assure us that The Fault in Our Stars is totally fictional, and that it would be fruitless, and he believes inappropriate, for a reader to seek anything in the author’s real life that relates to the book.
I took that literally when I read it—why not?—but now I wonder if it’s intended ironically or playfully, for an important part of the book is about Hazel and Gus being influenced by an unusually powerful and accurate book about a kid with cancer by an author named Peter Van Houton, who does indeed turn out to have had to deal with cancer within his own family.
Speaking of Van Houton, by the way, I found myself feeling defensive about him. I think he’s treated poorly in the book. I don’t like the attitude Hazel and Gus come to have toward him. I don’t know that I would go beyond that to say I think the author treats him unfairly—because I’m not sure to what extent we can equate the attitudes of his two main characters with his own attitude—but I found myself feeling more sympathy for Van Houton than he gets in the book.
Hazel has long idolized Van Houton as this extraordinarily insightful novelist who somehow understands just what it is to have cancer as a kid, to live her life in effect. Once he’s introduced to Van Houton’s book, Gus becomes an admirer as well.
Hazel is especially curious, to the point of obsession, with what happens to the characters in Van Houton’s book after the ambiguous ending that seems to imply the protagonist’s death. Hazel and Gus attempt to contact Van Houton to ask him. For a time they aren’t able to, as Van Houton evidently has become something of a recluse living overseas in the Netherlands, but eventually they do manage some limited communication with him that includes an invitation to stop by if they’re ever in the area.
It turns out they are able to do just that, as they overcome the health and financial hurdles to take a trip, with Hazel’s mother, across the ocean to meet him in person. But the meeting is highly disappointing for them. Van Houton is a drunken curmudgeon, who is at best eccentric and at worst insane. He doesn’t give a straight answer to Hazel’s questions about the fate of the characters in his book, and in general is brusque and erratic in his treatment of them. They leave this anti-climactic situation in disgust.
They write him off as a bad person. When he later surprisingly shows up in their town and urgently tries to talk to Hazel, she wants nothing to do with him.
I just thought they were much too dismissive of him much too quickly.
Look, this is a guy who allegedly wrote this amazing book that showed he’s incredibly knowledgeable and understanding about what it’s like to be a kid with cancer like you, whatever there is in his initial behavior that you find objectionable can presumably be partly (not fully, but partly) excused by the pain you can infer he’s had in his life (that incidentally is pain that enabled him to write the book you love), and he spends thousands of dollars to fly to you and try to tell you something. “Well, he’s an asshole and I’ll have nothing to do with him because he was rude to us” just seems way too harsh to me.
I mean, their main beef with him is that he won’t satisfy Hazel’s curiosity as to what happens to the characters in his book after it ends. But let’s think about that.
First off, it’s a dumb question. Nothing happens to them; they’re fictional characters!
OK, but one might say that obviously she doesn’t mean the question literally, that in effect what she’s asking is “If you were to have extended the book rather than have it end so abruptly, or if you were to write a sequel, what would happen to the characters?”
But that’s almost as unanswerable a question. Even if he has some idea of what he might write in the future—which it’s entirely possible he doesn’t—it doesn’t “count” until he actually writes and publishes it. Whatever pseudo-reality fictional characters have in books—or movies, plays, whatever—doesn’t exist when the work is only in the speculative stage. As a writer, you can change your mind, do rewrites, delete sections, etc. as you go through the process of writing a novel. This hypothetical sequel they’re talking about is something he hasn’t even started, let alone finished.
There’s a story—probably apocryphal—about the legendary old time baseball umpire Bill Klem. It’s said that he was serving as the home plate umpire in a game where there was a very close call on a play at the plate. As the runner slid into home and the catcher applied the tag, Klem did not immediately make the call. Whether he hesitated out of indecision, paused intentionally for dramatic effect, or what, who knows? But the catcher anxiously looked up at him and said, “Well, what is he? Safe or out?”
Klem looked down at the catcher and replied, “Son, he ain’t anything until I say he is.”
Well, Hazel can demand until she’s blue in the face to know what happens to the characters in Van Houton’s book in the nonexistent sequel, but the most accurate answer to her question is that until he writes it, nothing happens to them.
What’s interesting is that in the course of not giving her the kind of answer she’s looking for, he says some intriguing things. But Hazel and Gus aren’t able to hear these things because they’ve decided that if he doesn’t give what they interpret as a straight answer then he’s just a jerk anyway.
They’re teenagers, and they’re going through very emotionally powerful stuff, so maybe that’s excusable. But I’m actually a little surprised Green didn’t in some way follow up on what Van Houton says. Instead his remarks are kind of left just lying there, unexplicated.
First, in the course of his random, drunken ranting in the Netherlands when they visit, he tells Hazel that what she needs to focus on is not the answer to the question of what happens after the book ends, but on why that’s become such an important matter for her.
But she passes on this opportunity to reflect on what this all says about her rather than about fictional characters in a book.
Later, when he comes to this country, he finally gives Hazel the “answer” to what happened to the mother after his book ended: “All cells come from cells. Every cell is born of a previous cell, which was born of a previous cell. Life comes from life. Life begets life begets life begets life begets life.”
But again she passes on the opportunity to talk about this or think about this. It’s not like she asks him to explain his remark and he refuses. She’s no longer listening to him and no longer cares what he says.
So what are we to make of these remarks, since we can muse about them even if she doesn’t? Is the idea that focusing on the fates of individuals misses the point of life, that all that really matters about individuals is that they are links in a chain, that we need to step back and look at the chain—the entire history of the human species, or perhaps of all life on Earth—rather than worry about specific links, that there is no meaning in the lives of specific links beyond that they’re participating in this greater chain?
I’m not sure that that, or something like it, is what Van Houton is trying to convey to her, and I don’t think I particularly agree with that philosophy if it is. But like I say, I’m a little surprised these are left as undeveloped nuggets. It strikes me as the main thing, or one of the main things, that Green wants us to learn from the book, but I have only a vague grasp of it.
Maybe it’s ironic to say about a book that’s supposedly a borderline kids’ book—or maybe it just indicates I’m dense when it comes to these things—but I’d have appreciated having this spelled out a bit more.
One of the things I’ll sometimes do with a popular book is check the Amazon reader reviews to see why the minority of contrarians disliked it. And this book is highly popular with readers, with the positive reviews outnumbering the negative reviews by a huge margin.
OK, but what about the very small number of malcontents who hated the book, who gave it the lowest rating? Why did they hate it?
Looking through their comments, maybe the single most common complaint is that Green greatly understates how bad it is to have cancer. Some of the negative commenters are people who themselves have or had cancer in their teens, and they’re just rolling their eyes in disgust at the notion that cancer patients would be jetting around the world, going out for a night of fancy dining and dancing in Amsterdam, making out in the Anne Frank house, etc.
Good luck finding the time and energy to do all that, they say, when in reality as a cancer sufferer you are always exhausted, puking, writhing in pain, going to and from doctors’ offices and hospitals for various treatments and emergencies, etc.
In response I would say that maybe they have a point that Green downplays a bit how much cancer affects one’s life. But as I noted above, one of the main things I felt reading this book is just how horrible it is to have cancer. So if he downplays it, he certainly doesn’t downplay it enough to alter that perception. If you can come away from this book thinking “I guess having cancer’s not so bad after all,” you are a very different reader from me.
The second most common criticism from the haters is that the love story portion is totally lame, “like something out of Twilight,” one commenter says.
In response, I can see some merit in the complaint. Yeah, it’s hokey to a degree. But I thought the romantic parts of the book were OK rather than awful. They didn’t touch me in a deep way, and they didn’t make me cringe. The quality of the writing in those portions of the book is middling, I would say.
But look, the book is written for teenagers and such. If it connects more with them than with someone like me or the haters because they still have kind of a hokey, simplistic, romantic notion of what it’s like to find “the one” and all that, that’s fine. Maybe being a little naïve or idealistic about love is actually one of the better traits about being young. At least I don’t see it as a particularly bad trait, and I don’t think art that fits that worldview is to be condemned.
If Twilight-type love stories speak to a certain demographic, what’s wrong with that? Good for those books and good for those readers.
So anyway, did I like The Fault in Our Stars (as my beloved friend will surely ask me)? Yes. I didn’t love it, and I don’t know that I’m all that inclined to read more by this author (unless perhaps she and I read one together), but as should be obvious by now it gave me plenty to think about, so clearly it had some value for me.