The reserve list at my local library for John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was so long that my request expired before I ever got a copy, and I had to put in another request. The level of enthusiasm on display here began to make me wonder, though; the last time I saw that much excitement for a book not about boy wizards was The Da Vinci Code, and that was a hot mess. Fortunately, The Fault in Our Stars was worth the wait. Spoilers to follow…
I have mixed feelings about John Green the Author (John Green the Person, according to my jaunts on Tumblr, is a delightful sort who is charmingly wacky and just thinks people should be who they are). I thoroughly enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines, but I found the love interest of Paper Towns to be in the vein of manic pixie dream girl, who turns out to be a grating disappointment. Looking for Alaska I’m neutral on, though I thought it also was a little manic pixie-y. That said, even if relying too heavily on tropes, John Green is a good author. If nothing else, though, points for progress in that Fault has a female protagonist, who is not particularly manic nor pixie-ish.
Of course, she is dying. Thyroid cancer! With bonus metastasis on her lungs! Fun for everyone, really, except for if you have it, like Hazel Grace Lancaster, who carries an oxygen tank, is diagnosed as depressed, and forced by her something of a helicopter mother to go to Support Group and hang out with other cancer kids, because nothing makes disease more tolerable than watching your peers slowly waste away from disease. I may be a cynic. But Hazel agrees with me. At least until one day she goes to Support Group and is greeted by a handsome guy: enter one manic pixie dream dude (sorta?), Augustus (‘Gus’, because who the hell names their kid Augustus) Waters, survivor of osteosarcoma but with a prosthetic leg as a fun trophy. That’s not to say that Augustus isn’t a developed character with an arc (sorta) and a backstory and the whatnot, but he largely exists to transform Hazel’s life, and take her away from that whole business of constantly thinking about death. There is also a sassy, vaguely British, pre-cancer female friend, who pops in now and then to say overtly sexual ‘you go, girl!’ or ‘wash that man outta your hair!’ things. In the movie version, this girl will be played by that girl who always plays rom-com best friends. You know the one.
I know I’m cranking up the sass at the moment, but that’s not to say the book isn’t good, chock-full of weighty, emotional moments, and earnestly gets to the heart of dying and the implications thereof. Hazel is obsessed with the (fictional) book An Imperial Affliction, by Peter van Houten, which is all about a teenage girl with cancer. The book ends in the middle of a sentence (full disclosure: I was 100% expecting Fault to wink-wink-nudge-nudge me and do the same. It does not, for which I’m grateful), with the implication that its protagonist Anna has finally succumbed, but it leaves the Hazel aching to know what happens to the other characters, namely, Anna’s mother. She writes Van Houten letters to this effect, but they’re unanswered, at least until she makes Augustus read the book and he tracks down van Houten’s assistant. Hazel obviously needs to know what happens to Anna’s mother because her own death is imminent and she needs to know on any level that the people she leaves behind will be okay. She fears inevitable divorce for her parents (though there’s really no evidence of that, her parents are often teary and overprotective, but they seem to get along with each other well enough, but what do I know). She fears that Augustus will be left alone again, since his last girlfriend died of a brain tumor. (Everyone in this book has some kind of cancer. I don’t know what the statistics are of how many people in ten are cancer sufferers, but if you’re looking at ten friends and all of you are cancer-free, it’s because everyone in this book is taking that proverbial bullet for you.)
Hazel and Augustus are very into one another. Very. Hazel suggests that Augustus ought to read An Imperial Affliction if he intends to remain even a satellite in her life, so Gus does so, and becomes obsessed enough in his own way that he completely bypasses sending a letter to author van Houten himself, instead tracking down van Houten’s assistant, which ends up garnering a response. Van Houten resides in Amsterdam, and through some communication, Hazel learns he has no intention of ever answering questions about the fate of the novel’s characters over email or in the phone, since they could be recorded and sold, but if Hazel ever ends up in Amsterdam, he’ll answer them in person. This is when Gus reveals that he never used his fictional-equivalent-of-Make-A-Wish wish (Hazel used hers on Disney), and he’s already made the arrangements to take them to Amsterdam to meet van Houten. (I’m torn about this gesture; on the one hand, it’s a large-scale equivalent of having someone order your dinner for you. On the other hand, I really hate having to plan trips.)
Hazel does not want to get involved with healthy, strapping Gus. She has one foot in the grave, as she’ll oft remind us, and she doesn’t want to devastate him with her inevitable death. As previously stated, his last girlfriend died and she cares enough about him to not want to have to put him through that again, so soon. But even though she has a brief brush with death, the two make their trip to Amsterdam with Hazel’s mom to meet up with van Houten and (politely) demand answers. Unfortunately, van Houten is a drunken ass and their trip was scheduled and suggested by his assistant without his knowledge or permission. He refuses their questions, repeatedly insults Gus, and flat-out ignores poor Hazel, whose heart is broken by this disappointment that used to be her hero.
Then one fun thing and one not-so-fun thing happen. The fun thing: Hazel decides (again) that life is too short, decides she really does love Gus after all, tells him so, and they sleep together. The not-so-fun thing: before returning to America, Gus reveals that his cancer is not only back, it’s really super back, no take-backsies. When they make it back stateside, they start their relationship full-fledged, but it’s the kind where Hazel spends a lot of time at Gus’s bedside while he gets increasingly ill and miserable.
This is not a book that shies from death. I’ve read a lot of books this year, or, you know, books in general, that are about or touch upon death. It’s usually the result of war, or superpowers, or zombies. It’s often death on a mass scale, or is justified for a protagonist’s continued survival (and/or the continuation of their overall mission for the Forces of Good), and it’s unpleasant but reasonable. Death in that context sends a message to the reader. And we forgive the death, because we understand the message. We forgive the death because even though war is an unfortunate part of our life, the fictional death we read is generally in the context of history or fantasy, and therefore is removed from us. That’s not the case here. Hazel and Gus text, they play video games, they watch America’s Next Top Model. Hazel and Gus live in modern times and could easily be you or me. They get cancer and live with death, simple, everyday death, and it’s close to home. It aches. Simple, everyday death just basically sucks. Fault just kind of slaps you in the face with your own mortality, and it is rarely fun to be slapped in the face with anything.
So if you like your romance on the sweet but tragic side, have at it. There’s nothing star-crossed here, but when two people meet at a Cancer Support Group for children and teens, you know it’s already started poorly and is probably going to end just as poorly. I don’t think anyone goes into this with the illusion that both characters, or really, any characters, are going to make it out of this alive, given that Hazel spends every other paragraph drumming it into our heads that death is ever-present and lurking around every corner. Still, it is about romance. The problem with a lot of teen romance, both real and fictional, is the teenage belief that this is the realest, truest love, and those two kids are just going to be together forever. That’s not true here, but it is the prevalent belief and it makes for a lovely story that’s both endearing and really, really depressing.