Hazel Grace Lancaster, the teenage narrator of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, says early in the novel that “cancer books suck.” Based on the media I’ve seen that attempts to deal with the disease, I don’t have much reason to disagree with her. It’s very difficult to write a truthful account of cancer because the arc of the disease doesn’t really fit with the narrative arcs we have come to expect from stories. Cancer often lacks a happy ending. Still, in spite of what Hazel Grace suggests, The Fault in Our Stars very much does not suck. I found it to be a moving, insightful, and extremely well-crafted look at the way we deal with loss.
Hazel Grace is a seventeen-year-old girl living in Indianapolis with terminal lung cancer. For her, it’s not a matter of if she’s going to die, but when. She no longer attends public school and needs an oxygen tank to breath normally. While attending a support group for kids who have cancer, she meets two boys. Isaac’s cancer has already claimed one of his eyes, and he will soon go in for an operation to remove the other. Augustus is a survivor of a historically treatable bone cancer that has left him with an amputated leg but few other ill effects. Isaac comes and goes from the story, but Augustus becomes a significant figure in Hazel Grace’s life. The two of them become obsessed with a novel by a reclusive American author who emigrated to Amsterdam. They decide to use Augustus’ remaining “wish” (which is among a category of complimentary items and services that Hazel refers to as “cancer perks”) to travel to Amsterdam to ask the novelist about the book’s frustratingly vague and truncated ending.
Green’s characters are hyper-articulate and funny in a way that I initially found to be unrealistic and jarring. Augustus is a sixteen-year-old boy who expounds at length about the metaphorical resonances of shooting free throws. This flavor of observation is common for him. Hazel, likewise, shows herself to be quick-witted and erudite. Both are able to clearly articulate their thoughts and emotions, which at first didn’t ring quite true. They were too quick, too funny, to ready to be profound. As I read further, however, I got over it because Hazel and Augustus become so much more than the patterns of their speech. By the novel’s end, they were both living, breathing people in my imagination. Through them, Green attempts to bring the awkward, inarticulate emotional morass of a teenage mind to the page. So, at least for me, the emotions felt genuine, even if the lexical vehicle that delivered them sometimes did not.
The Fault in Our Stars is essentially a love story. And not just the love story between the two charismatic and likable leads. Augustus and Hazel both have a profound love affair with the world and life, which makes the inescapable subject of the book all the more heartbreaking. Green masterfully walks the fine line between sentimentality and falseness. I bought all of it, and I loved it. The book is completely honest and earnest about its subject. The story certainly is calculated to affect a reader emotionally, but it also never feels manipulative or cheap.
Perhaps the reason I admire The Fault in Our Stars the most is that its an utterly unbullshitty book about pain, loss, disease, and love. It never presents false hope or platitudes, but it also never becomes cynical of people who get through pain with the help of the aphorisms and throw-pillow-embroidered “encouragements” that litter one character’s home. Hazel notes that these are simply ways that people deal with situations. There’s no guidebook for dealing with loss or impending loss, and there are no easy answers. And thus the book smartly doesn’t try to offer any. Instead, what we are left with is two kids, trying to live as best they can with uncertainty.
The Fault in Our Stars resists our expectations of a cancer story because real stories rarely conform to genre expectations. John Green has done something remarkable with this novel. Young adult literature is still sometimes viewed as an implicitly inferior form of writing. That perception is changing with the steep rise of the quality of books dealing with the lives of fictional teenagers. Green’s novel shows, unassailably, that a young adult novel can be just as powerful, moving, and instructive as any other.
The Fault in Our Stars gets five pieces of lasagna.