Hazel was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 12. Since then, she’s lived her life expecting to die at any time. At sixteen, she’s outlived expectations, but she’s tethered to an oxygen tank and to the chemicals that keep her tumors at bay. When she meets Augustus Waters at her cancer support group, her life flips upside down. Being with Augustus is unlike anything she’s ever imagined, and forces Hazel to re-examine how she looks at life and death, love and loss.
Every once in a while, a book comes around for review and I find that I have a really, really hard time writing the review. This is one of those books. So, let’s get some of the context out of the way. It’s not just that John Green is a wildly popular author or that this book is already being hailed as one of the best books of 2012 (and it is only February). Green’s fan base is fiercely devoted and he is beloved in the YA world. I’m not one of these fans (Nerdfighters?), in general. I find Green’s previous titles problematic for a number of reasons: pretension, voice, and manic-pixie-dream-girls, to name a few. The Fault in Our Stars was the first Green book I’ve been able to finish.
Readers, I want to say that I loved it. In all honesty, when I first finished the book (on the treadmill at the gym, where I was reduced to a blubbering, snotty mess), I thought I maybe did. But as I let the book marinate in my head, I started to feel the first pangs of doubt. Did I love it? No. I liked it very much, but the more I thought about it, the more I found fault with it.
As a narrator, Hazel is about as complex as they come. While she could easily be precocious and inauthentic with her extraordinary vocabulary and shrewd outlook on life, her voice works simply because of her unique situation. Hazel sounds so much older than her sixteen years because she’s lived such a condensed life.
The character of Augustus isn’t as successful, however. He is supposed to be much less intellectual than Hazel and yet often comes off sounding much too smart for his own good. As the two become more enmeshed in one another, Augustus becomes more and more like the perfect boyfriend, which lessens his appeal, makes him larger than life, and decreases his authenticity.
Despite this, Green’s characters in the book shine with humor and smarts. The secondary characters are well-developed and exceedingly sympathetic (more Isaac, please). The existential discussions of life, death, literature, and everything in between could easily become overly didactic, but they never do.
However, I couldn’t help but wish for more depth and more complexity. While Green offers an ending that readers will find satisfying (he’s gone on record about believing that authors owe their readers a legitimate ending), it undermines what the book has attempted to do. By proclaiming itself an anti-cancer cancer book, it has to surpass the books in the genre that have come before it by not succumbing to the tropes of fighting in the face of death. And it doesn’t. Which comes as both a surprise and a complete disappointment. Was it intentional? Was it Green giving into the societal pressures that surround books like this? What, exactly, are readers supposed to take from the book as a result?
At the end of the day, most readers are going to love this one. There’s no doubt that this is Green’s finest work to date. Recommended.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Dutton Juvenile: 2012. Library copy.