Sunday, February 9, 2014

the fault in our stars: a review

"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."

So begins John Green's novel The Fault in our Stars, and so begins my enthrallment with Hazel Grace Lancaster, Augustus Waters, the author John Green, and the whole sweet tragic violent comic tale.

John Green was unknown to me until STG introduced me to him as one half of the Vlog Brothers - one of the many YouTube channels STG follows. Ya ya, a vlogger (snickerYouTubeFamoussnicker) who writes, I thought. That doesn't make him a real writer, I thought. I'm sure his books only sell to the geeks (the Vlog Brothers inspire an army called 'nerdfighters' - I'm not kidding) who follow him on YouTube and Twitter, I thought. 

And then The Fault in Our Stars was published, and got rave reviews, and debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for children's chapter books (more on that in a minute), and has stayed on the list for 62 weeks thus far. Nerdfighters can't account for that; incredible writing, taut story-telling, recognizable characters you want to cheer for, and a brilliant turn of phrase can't even account for that. The Fault in Our Stars is one of those rare books that combines all the things you look for, and something more - or in this case several somethings more - that elevate it into ... a lesson free from pedantry, a fable without moral, a melody you can't quite place but want to hum along to. It's the kind of book that gets re-read and cherished. 

The Fault in Our Stars is classified as a young adult novel, but it's so much more than the silly label applied for the convenience of marketers and librarians. I enjoy young adult novels that don't speak down to or preach at their audience. I loved the Hunger Games trilogy, still enjoy rereading some of the stories of my youth, and don't consider the YA label a reason not to consider a read. However, I will admit that I rarely expect them to encourage me to consider things newly, to present ontological and philosophical puzzles to ponder, and to send me to the dictionary to clarify vocabulary. The Fault in Our Stars did all of that while remaining utterly accessible and readable. 

For those of you wondering just what the book is about, the first-person narrator Hazel is the star of the show, living with incurable cancer and falling in love for the first (only?) time. Hazel's sweetheart Augustus (Gus) is a heartthrob who lost a leg to cancer. Cancer is appropriately inescapable throughout the story. While all Hazel, Gus and their friends want is to be normal children, they know that can never be. Once a cancer diagnosis is delivered, life is never the same. So they joke about the 'cancer perks' that come with being visibly ill, tease each other about their particular physical limitations, preserve what dignity they can. And, they are teenagers. They want freedom from their parents, except when they don't; they want to borrow the car; they explore their sexuality; they make snarky, funny, borderline inappropriate comments. I don't want to talk about the plot - it's a short novel packed with movement with exquisite pacing I have no interest in undermining. 

One caveat: John Green does not shy away from the 'civil war' that is cancer attacking the body it feeds on. Cancer is completely invasive in a body and in this novel - the story wouldn't exist without it. I recognized in his writing some of the moments I witnessed in supporting a friend as she died of cancer - her wish that people would talk to her about something else, how determined she was to preserve her curly red hair, how annoyed she was her last Christmas to only receive pyjamas as gifts, the battle to be more than her diagnosis in the eyes of her friends and family. I watched and listened and helped her plan her funeral. But I have not faced cancer as a mother, or as a daughter, or as a lover. I found Green's handling of it honest and appropriate, but for those people who have had cancer attack even closer to home, it might be a difficult read.
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