Some books have a driving plot. Some have thrilling characterization. Some have deep thematic significance. And some have a little of everything — not many, but some. “The Fault In Our Stars” by John Green is one of those magical novels that combines excellent plotting and pacing with vivid characters, consistent themes, and evocative writing. Although the novel is classified as “young adult” it is one of those novels that is so classified based primarily upon the youth of the narrator. The dialogue is crisp and well-written, and the story compelling and the themes include the heaviest of all: death, and the meaning of life.
Rarely when speaking of a book do I recommend, whole-heartedly, that everyone read it: this book is one of those that deserve such a blanket recommendation.
The book jacket reads: At 16, Hazel Grace Lancaster, a three-year stage IV–cancer survivor, is clinically depressed. To help her deal with this, her doctor sends her to a weekly support group where she meets Augustus Waters, a fellow cancer survivor, and the two fall in love. Both kids are preternaturally intelligent, and Hazel is fascinated with a novel about cancer called An Imperial Affliction. Most particularly, she longs to know what happened to its characters after an ambiguous ending. To find out, the enterprising Augustus makes it possible for them to travel to Amsterdam, where Imperial’s author, an expatriate American, lives.
That description is a little off, however: Hazel’s voice is never that of a clinically depressed person — it is simply the voice of a highly intelligent 16 year old who has had ample opportunity to reflect upon her life and its value, or lack thereof. At no point does she hope to die — indeed, for a terminal patient, she is surprisingly upbeat. Similarly to say that she and Augustus “fall in love” is a misnomer — they do, of course (it is, at its heart, young adult, after all) but it is a slow falling — one in which each character’s philosophies on life are drawn and teased out. There are three teen characters in the book, and each has his own unique stance on life, love, and death.
There’s Augustus, who believes in living life to its absolute fullest, who dreams only of accomplishing something great. If he is to die, he wants to do it grandly — as demonstrated by his suicidal heroics while playing video games. He’s tall and handsome, a survivor of cancer who can never fully fit in which his peers at high school — his cancer and brush with death has made him somehow different. He believes in love, but even more he believes in sacrifice.
Hazel has never really lived life: she speaks rarely of her life before cancer, and throughout the book we only see one friend from that time before she was afflicted: a caricatured person who weaves in and out of pages but leaves nothing lasting. Hazel, unlike Augustus, wishes to leave little to no mark on the world: she is aware that, because she will die young, she will only leave pain behind. She refuses to fall in love with Augustus because she knows, when she dies, it will only harm him more.
In the middle of the two is Isaac. Diagnosed with eye cancer, we discover early on that he must have his eyes surgicially removed in order to defeat the cancer. He’s not happy about it, but it’s clearly preferable to dying. He believes in love in the way that a normal teenager does, with neither the zeal of Augustus nor the fear of Hazel. He’s certain that he and his girlfriend of a year will last forever — and is devastated when, inevitably, they don’t. His pain is real and palpable throughout the novel, but so, too, is his normalness: unlike Augustus and Hazel, the removal of his eyes removes death from him — and though his situation is awful, he always finds the humor in it.
These three characters make up the bulk of a novel which, though centered around death (the first scene takes place in a hospital basement) celebrates life. It is, of course, young adult — there’s a “twist” that happens midway through the novel, but is heavily foreshadowed earlier. Young readers may be surprised or devastated by the twist — older readers will see it coming. Unlike many novels (think Jodi Picoult) the twist isn’t one that is meant to surprise, however — it’s a necessary mechanism that fits within the scope of the novel and furthers the themes and development of each individual character.
Many of the scenes are beautifully drawn, and once again — tie in both to the plot and to the overarching themes. These scenes almost uniformly tie together death and life: an outdoor picnic, where children play on a sculpture of bones: a romantic dinner made even more romantic by falling petals: a first kiss in the basement of Anne Frank’s house. The idea is simple, but transcendent, a near-trope itself: there is death in life, and life in death, and the beauty is drawn from that duality.
It’s a breathtaking novel, and one that I hope makes it into ninth grade reading canon. It is also being made into a movie — a move with I always greet with skepticism. Adaptations of books into movies is an easy Hollywood gamble for money — sometimes they serve as fantastic supplements to books, or encourage people to read the source material, which I fully support. My worry here, however, is that this is not a slick vehicle like “The Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter” — it is young adult literature, which traditionally has not made for an easy transition to the screen. Still, the book is recommended, the movie is upcoming, and I now eagerly look forward to reading a number of Mr. Green’s other works.