Book review: John Green, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’

FaultinOurStars

Photo courtesy of Dutton Books.

“The Fault in Our Stars” is designed to make the reader cry, but it is a bit more complicated than that.

John Green’s fourth novel centers on Hazel Lancaster, a 16-year-old cancer patient, as she considers exploring young love with Augustus Waters, a fellow cancer patient who has lost a leg to the disease.

This book is obviously designed to make the reader cry. That much is obvious from even the most vague of plot summaries.

Green, a YouTube personality who worked as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital, planned to become an Episcopalian priest before pursuing his writing career, and is now quite successful, having enjoyed some time on the New York Times bestseller list as well as a number of awards for young adult fiction. A film adaptation of “The Fault in Our Stars” starring Shailene Woodley (“The Descendents”) as Hazel is scheduled to be released in June 2014.

Naturally, Green’s time working at the hospital inspired much of the content of “The Fault in Our Stars,” and who doesn’t love to see affluent white men achieve success by exploiting the less fortunate souls they encounter while doing charity work?

Regardless, the novel is a quick and easy read that is predominantly enjoyable (except, of course, for the aforementioned inevitable crying).

Hazel and Augustus meet at a support group for children living with cancer that meets in a church basement (“the literal heart of Jesus,” according to their hapless counselor Patrick, who will be played by the excellent stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia in the film). Hazel recommends her favorite book to Augustus, and the pair embarks on a quest to track down the ne’er-do-well author to answer their questions about the novel’s cliffhanger ending — obviously falling in love along the way.

The progression of the relationship is not exactly seamless, but it is sweet and absurdly romantic (to a ridiculous degree, even, when it gets to the point of sipping Dom Pérignon by candlelight in Amsterdam).

Where “The Fault in Our Stars” deviates most from stereotypical young adult “sick lit” or romance is the extended philosophical element that carries throughout. The characters are witty, interested in the world and spend a great deal of time ruminating on the human condition and the meaning of life as they deal more closely with mortality than typical teenagers.

Because the two main characters are also devout readers who are deeply committed to symbolism (Augustus, at least, actively creates and points out metaphors in his own life, such as a never-smoked pack of cigarettes he carries at all times), there are a number of literary references that parallel the story’s plot. The most obvious literary allusion is the novel’s title, which refers to a line from “Julius Caesar”: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The characters discuss this excerpt at one point in the story, concluding that Shakespeare was incorrect because the fault is, in fact, often in the stars — lots of things happen to people outside of their control.

However, the most poignant allusion comes when Hazel recites some of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to Augustus from memory on the precipice of a pivotal moment in the progression of their relationship. The poem is a particularly resonant choice because of the narrator’s famous indecision (“Do I dare / Disturb the universe?”), all the while Augustus and Hazel struggle to decide if temporary pleasure would outweigh long-term pain, if their lives and the lives of all the other “dead people” will have mattered at all in the long run.

Ultimately, all of the characters are likable and dryly humorous, specifically Hazel and Augustus, but also their parents and friends. And, for a novel about teenagers with terminal cancer, it was surprisingly lacking in angst and instead portrayed the protagonists as intelligent, thoughtful people who made mature decisions about their lives.

The love story wasn’t as impactful as expected, but “The Fault in Our Stars” is interesting, and its popularity alone may warrant it a read before next summer.

‘The Fault in Our Stars’

John Green

Release Date: Jan. 10, 2012

Genre: Young Adult

Pages: 318

Grade: B

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