Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars

Written by: John Green

Published: 2012

Synopsis: Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 13, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs... for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.

I have seen this blue cover pop up in blog posts, tv segments, book store windows...it is literally EVERYWHERE which usually means I will do everything I can to run in the opposite direction. But in furthering my attempt to read more YA without pre-judging I decided to see what all the fuss was about with John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. 

First things first, I feel like an idiot. I have watched SO MANY Vlogbrothers videos and I had no idea that THAT John is THIS John. It was only when I flipped to the back of the book to see the author's picture and the middle-aged white dude I expected turned out to be a very familiar young face that I was like "errrrr duh Kayleigh, way to be on top of things". And once I made that connection a few other things started slotting into place and making sense, namely the very internet-y dialogue. The language Hazel and Augustus use feels like a Tumblr post, there are so many meme-y phrases used (i.e. WHAT IS THIS LIFE?) that I was seriously stumped trying to work out whether I thought the voice was genuine or not. I mean, I'm all about 'feels' and 'what is this life' and using bizarrely formal language to describe something simple (i.e. p45 "But three years removed from proper full-time schoolic exposure to my peers, I felt a certain unabridged distance between us") but I don't really use it outside of the internet, and before I knew it was VlogBros John I had assumed that the author just visited Tumblr and took notes. But when I found out who John Green was it was like "OK sure, it makes more sense that a teenager from his imagination talks like that, because he basically is the internet".

Anyway, I was a little conflicted. On the one hand I really respected John Green's attempt to write a different cancer story. Generally, i'm a little opposed to cancer and Holocaust books, because they're emotionally manipulative by design, and people sometimes mistake "this book made me sad because cancer" with "this is a genuinely interesting and different book" and I usually end up crying while hating the author for getting me with no real effort. There was an element of that in this book because it is a book about two teenagers with cancer, but John Green really tried to make it about something more. The two protagonists, Hazel and Augustus, are realists about their illnesses. Hazel is stable for now, and Augustus is in remission but they both know that even if they end up completely cancer free they'll always be defined by the illness that took them over as children. And while Augustus is preoccupied with making a mark on the world, Hazel is terrified of hurting the people in her life more than she already has. In one of the true heartbreaking moments Hazel refers to herself as a grenade saying;
I just want to 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 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. (p99)
Around the same point in the novel, Augustus's friend Isaac, has his heart broken when his girlfriend breaks up with him right before he loses his last eye to cancer and will be made blind. These kids just want to live regular lives and fall in love and play video games and go to school but cancer keeps getting in their way, and John Green is so brutally honest with all of these scenes. We might want Isaac to get his happy ever ending with his girlfriend of 14 months, but the reality of his cancer proved too much for her, and while we want to hate her for it, can we really blame her? Like Hazel says soon after, what Isaac did wasn't nice, it wasn't his fault, but it wasn't nice either. What this book does well is avoid the cancer story cliches, they aren't strong and brave because they have cancer, they're kids dealing with cancer on top of adolescence and it scares them and makes them angry and frustrated, which actually makes them rather strong and brave in their own way.

Twenty pages into this book I was ready to put it down and move on. I didn't really like Hazel (or care enough to dislike her), the tumblr-talk was a little overwhelming and I just didn't care. I decided to keep going, and 20 pages quickly became 90 and then 140. As I kept going I found myself caring more, but to be perfectly honest, I don't know if the reason I cared more was because I actually warmed to the characters or if it was because of the parallels that existed between this story and my uncle's death last year. I was very aware that when I got close to tears in one scene between Hazel and her parents, I was actually thinking about how hard my grandparents took my uncle's death, and how losing a child* to illness is earth shattering whether your child is 16 or 49. So I'm perhaps the wrong person to be reviewing this book, because I just don't know how emotionally resonant this book would be for someone who wasn't in my shoes last year. Or maybe if you had a sister or cousin or best friend who died of cancer you'd react in a completely different way again. So I'm wary of saying that I ended up enjoying (so to speak) this book, because I don't know if I did - or if I just connected with my own grieving process.

I haven't even discussed how Hazel's obsession with a book, and Augustus' devotion to her leads them on a trek to Amsterdam to meet the author who ended Hazel's favourite book so abruptly. Or about the support groups or how the parents act and react to things in this book. In many ways this is a really solid book that looks at a common YA topic with something of a new perspective, but even with my experience with my uncle looming over me the entire book, I still didn't find it as breathtaking as everyone else seems too. I'm glad I pushed past the first 20 pages, and I'm glad I read this book. There's some real humour and heart in this book, and I think it was one line in particular which helped me continue reading even after I was ready to pass this book on;
I didn't tell him that the diagnosis came three months after I got my first period. Like: Congratulations! You're a woman. Now die. (p24)
So read it? I'm leaning more into the read it than don't read it column, but I think your takeaway will really depend on your personal experience with cancer or illness, or maybe your tolerance for emotionally manipulative books. If you do decide to read it, be sure to keep some tissues handy. Just in case.

*That isn't a spoiler. Hazel was close to death at 13 and had recovered (sort of) when this book took place. There is a flash back to that death bed scene though, which is what I'm referring to here.


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