The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Last week, I posted two second-hand book reviews, and today's book was the first of the two reviews. (Jennifer Hubbard's sophomore novel, Try Not to Breathe) was the second.) Allow me to say that M's raves about The Fault in Our Stars were entirely well-placed and were, if anything, more circumscribed than they could have been.
I'm sure you can find plenty of detailed, thoughtful reviews of this book already, and if that's the sort of review you're looking for, I guess you should look elsewhere.
First off, I'm too tired to get myself entirely organized, having finished the book at 2:40 a.m. this morning. (Note to self: You ought to know better than to say that you're going to read "just a few chapters before bed" of a John Green book. You've read all his other novels and published short stories, and you know you're going to want to follow the character to the end.)
Secondly, my eyes are actually tired this morning - not so much from reading, but from all the crying. Now, I expected to cry, you see, because this book is about a girl named Hazel who has terminal thyroid cancer that has metastasized to her lungs. Experience tells me that in a book with a dying main character, I'm definitely going to cry. (In support of which assertion, I refer you to a pair of such books that I reviewed in tandem in a post entitled "What if you only had a short while to live?" back in October of 2007: Deadline by Chris Crutcher and Before I Die by Jenny Downham.) But I did not expect to cry as much as I did, nor did I expect to use up more than 15 tissues.
I guess I expected to cry a bit for these characters that I came to love, in that way that readers do. I expected my inner teen reader to cry a bit because the book deals with issues of love and of loss in a wonderful way (affirming that it is indeed "better to have loved and lost/ than never to have loved at all" (Tennyson), even though that quote thankfully never appears inside its pages). I expected to cry a bit because I'm a mother of two teen girls, and it's easy to get me to cry over the thought of losing a child. But I did not expect to cry over the thought of lost love, which is what made me cry hardest of all, as I thought about how I'd feel if anything happened to the love of my life. (And oh, I'm going to squish him really hard when I see him this afternoon. And quite possibly burst into tears again.) Yet that is precisely what happened. And although there's a hopeful ending (yes, in a book that contains eulogies and in which you know for a fact that the main character is not long for this world, there's still a wonderfully hopeful ending), and although I already know that Tennyson was correct, the fact that the book hit me so very hard is a testament to the excellent writing and still more excellent ideas it contains.
The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of terminally ill Hazel, who meets a hot boy named Augustus Waters at the Support Group her parents force her to attend. Hazel and Augustus hit it off, and romance follows, even though Hazel tries hard to fend it off, believing that it's better not to form attachments, since she knows she's going to die, and she knows that the people she leaves behind will be hurt when she does, and, well, she doesn't want to be responsible for hurting more people than is absolutely necessary (and even then, as is the case with her parents, she wishes those people didn't have to be hurt). Hazel tells Augustus about her favorite (fictional) book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten, a literary sort of book that accurately describes what it's like to be a teen dying of cancer, and which ends mid-sentence as the main character dies or loses the strength to continue. Both Hazel and Augustus end up loving the book, and chasing down the reclusive author to try to find answers to Hazel's questions about what happened to some of the other characters in the book. Hazel is especially concerned about the main character's mother, wanting a happy ending for that mother. Without it ever being stated, it's entirely clear that Hazel is particularly worried about what will become of her own mother once Hazel dies, since her mother's entire life pretty much revolves around caring for Hazel - it's her mother's full-time job, pretty much, and as an only child, Hazel worries that once she's gone, her mother will be left with nothing.
There is a lot going on in this book - a lot of themes, including the aforementioned ones involving family and romance as well as an examination of what it's like to be sick in today's society, and how ostracizing it can be. The book includes quotations of poems, including "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot, "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens and, if memory serves, a bit of Robert Frost and Walt Whitman somewhere, although I couldn't readily find it. Quotations from Shakespeare (the title is drawn from Cassius's quote in Act I, scene 2 of Julius Caesar: ""The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings") and from the fictitious novel by Van Houton, all of which tie into the plot and themes, sometimes in unexpectedly interrelated ways. Conversations about what happens after death and whether there is such a thing as the immortality of the soul (that I totally remember having when I was a teen, if not in quite as articulate a way as Augustus and Hazel). Thoughts about Big Picture Things - the existence of God (or of some sort of knowing universe), what is it all about, why is there suffering, do you really need the bad things in order to appreciate the good, etc.
The writing is gorgeous - luminous. Numinous, even. The characters are human and real and have their faults and weaknesses as well as their strengths. They are angry and frightened as well as brave and noble. They are funny as well as tragic. And after I've hugged my beloved and taken a few days to calm down, I will probably read this book a second time, because there's a lot in there to savor, and I'm afraid I read it at a bit of a tear in order to find out what happened next.