You’ve probably heard that John Green’s latest and greatest
young adult novel, “The Fault in Our Stars” is this year’s must-read novel. With an upcoming Fox 2000 feature film, a very large and very vocal readership, and that paragon of teenage angst-lit Green himself to recommend the book, how could all this good press be wrong?
I’m only one reviewer, but I’m fairly certain it’s wrong.
“The Fault in Our Stars” is the “heartrending” tale of Hazel Lancaster, a snarky, improbably witty 16-year-old cancer patient. She meets the dreamboat Augustus Waters (age 17, and similarly intelligent), at a support group for “cancer kids,” as she terms her fellow patients. Naturally, the two are immediately drawn to each other, and a flirtatious friendship quickly develops.
Hazel, we know from the start, is not going to survive her cancer. She was fortunate enough to make a miraculous recovery from the brink of death a few years ago, but she is currently playing out a waiting game. This would make most people angst-ridden, so her snarkiness is acceptable. Augustus, on the other hand, is in remission and currently enrolled in school–an unheard of normalcy in this book. This is one problem I have with the novel; Hazel hasn’t been to school since her cancer was diagnosed when she was 13. Regardless of how much she likes to read, and really, she mostly is rereading the same book again and again, I find it very difficult to believe that she would be quite so well-spoken, or so knowledgeable on so wide a variety of subjects as Green grants her. Just something to think about.
Either way, Hazel and Augustus are not for one minute allowed to forget the liminal space they’re occupying in the world of normal teenagers. To keep them from slipping up, Green writes physical reminders for them to lug around: for Hazel, an oxygen tank, for Augustus, a prosthetic leg. Hazel begins to worry that her inevitable demise will leave Augustus heartbroken, but I think we all know that her noble sacrifice will only last a certain amount of pages before our young hero makes some kind of declaration.
Aside from their budding romance and the continual stream of observations about life as a teenage cancer patient, the main plot of the novel is the hunt for answers regarding Hazel’s favorite book, a (fictional) novel written by a recluse, which Hazel deems the best description of a teenager’s battle with cancer. That book ends abruptly, and Hazel is desperate to know what becomes of her favorite characters. Augustus is similarly taken by the novel, and the pair go so far as travelling to Amsterdam to track down the elusive author, demanding answers. But they might not like what they find …
The title, by the way, comes from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” when the ever-charming Cassius is convincing Caesar’s homeboy Brutus that the time has come for some backstabbing on the Ides of March: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Green’s heavy-handed implication is that Hazel and Augustus’ underling statuses are the result of their own faulty stars, rather than an inability to take action on their own behalf. Okay, fair enough.
To be fair to Mr. Green, I read this book in one three-hour go, neglecting homework and dinner alike. The pacing is quick, and the descriptions and dialogue are laugh-out-loud funny in their irreverence. Unfortunately, his characters undermine him at every turn. Maybe with different protagonists or a less cliché situation, “The Fault in Our Stars” could have been really great. But, as those things are kind of the point of this novel, I guess it’s not to be.
To summarize, if you generally enjoy the work of John Green, then I’m sure you’ll very much like “The Fault in Our Stars.” Personally, I do not recommend this novel because of its unbelievable characters (who also were apparently all named after their depression-era grandparents. That is the only reason I can think of for three teenage best friends being named Hazel, Augustus and Isaac, I mean, seriously) its unapologetic exploitation of teenage cancer as a setting for a rushed and generally trope-laden love plot, and its schmaltzy, self-important tone. All I’m saying is, if you find yourself looking for a book to read by the beach this summer, maybe skip this one, even if it is on the bestsellers shelf.