Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

John Green does not need my support. The Fault in Our Stars is a massive best-seller and the movie version is due out this spring. According to his brief bio, Green has won the Printz Medal, a Printz Honor, and the Edgar Award. He’s twice been a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. But because some of you—and you know who you are—may not be regularly exposed to young adult fiction, you may not have heard of The Fault in Our Stars or dismissed it despite its popularity. This means you are missing something extraordinary.

The novel is told in the first person by Hazel Grace Lancaster, who sets the tone immediately: “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”

Hazel’s cancer has settled in her lungs and is currently being held at bay by a new drug. Her mother and Doctor Jim, who adjusts her meds, decide she needs Support Group, “a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness.” In Group, she meets Augustus Waters, another cancer survivor, whose right leg has been amputated. They become best friends.

Another of Hazel’s friends, although he doesn’t know it, is Peter Van Houten, “the reclusive author of An Imperial Affliction, the book that was as close to a thing as I had to a Bible. Peter Van Houten was the only person I’d ever come across who seemed to (a) understand what it’s like to be dying and (b) not to have died.” An Imperial Affliction book seems to end inconclusively and although Hazel has written Van Houten any number of letters to ask about the characters, he’s never answered. Gus is so taken by the book and so involved with Hazel, he uses his one wish from The Genie Foundation, “which is in the business of giving sick kids one wish,” to take Hazel and her mother to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten.

The Fault in Our Stars is a number of things, all done extraordinarily well. It is an investigation into feelings about death. It is a poignant love story. It is a comic novel (I laughed aloud at several points). It is a meditation on literature, what it means, what it can mean, and the difference between the writer and the writing. It is, I think, finally, an illustration of what it means to accept reality. As Gus says, “The world is not a wish-granting factory.” Despite considerable propaganda to the contrary (most advertising, fiction, movies, TV shows, songs, and more), he’s right.

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