It would be next to impossible for me to write a review of The Fault in Our Stars at this point. The book has become a part of the pop culture landscape, an iconic work that will forever be a part of a generation’s vocabulary. It’s also been out for two years and has surpassed the point where any review that I could write would mean anything to anyone. So instead, I decided to do one of my “not quite a review” posts, with some general thoughts about the book and my experiences with it, because the last thing it needs at this point is one more review.
I came to The Fault in Our Stars from an interesting place. I’m typically not the first person I know to read a particular book, but in this case it seems like I might have been the last. Not only had seemingly everyone read the book, but it had become particularly pervasive online, with quotes, passages, analyses and all manner of strong emotional outpourings popping up all over the place. The last of those, in fact, had the largest hand in shaping my view of the book before I’d ever read a word. It seemed like everyone who read the book was reduced to a sobbing pile of emotions by the end, and the passion of the reactions made it seem like reading the book was almost a religious experience for many people. Of course, I do my best to try to temper my expectations when it finally comes time to experience something, but the sheer quantity and volume of its fans made that a difficult proposition at best. Add to that the fact that John Green was vastly internet famous before the book was even released, giving his audience a deeper connection to the book than I could ever have, knowing very little about him beyond what I’ve seen from others.
The other aspect of all of the things I’ve heard in the two years since the book was released is that much of the story and its highlights had been spoiled for me. I didn’t know everything, but I was certainly aware of the book’s tragic ending, leaving little in the way of true surprises. Some books are easy to enjoy equally whether one has been spoiled or not, but I do think The Fault in Our Stars suffers from knowing the ending. It created a certain amount of detachment in me from certain characters, which probably dulled some of my reactions to certain events. In the end, it’s safe to say that I did not feel the depth of emotion that seemingly everyone else did, which surprised me given my general propensity to cry at the drop of a hat in any particular story. I certainly got choked up multiple times throughout the book, but my eyes stayed mostly dry.
The biggest strengths of The Fault in Our Stars are its protagonist and the way it deals with the realities of teenagers with cancer. Hazel Grace Lancaster is a wonderfully crafted character dealing with an unimaginable burden in a way that is both inspiring and painfully human. She’s both a stereotypical modern literary teenager and the polar opposite of that. The way that John Green makes us feel the weight of her cancer and its effects, from the large, terrifying ones to the small, obnoxious, unending ones is truly spectacular. The novel is at its most real in the moments when the harsh truth comes to the surface. Hazel, despite still having aspects of a teenager, deals with those truths with a surprising amount of grace and a healthy dose of humor.
The moments that got to me the most were the variety of ways her disease had affected her thinking and her relationships with others, particularly her parents. Her feeling that she’s a grenade, who will eventually explode and hurt those around her, is shockingly cold yet a believable sentiment. The lingering presence of death over all of the character’s heads is a heartbreaking reality that people so young shouldn’t have to face. Hearing Hazel revisit the moments before her “miracle” recovery years before, with her parents telling her that it’s ok for her to let go and die, was truly heartbreaking. In fact, the characters I felt for the most might have been Hazel’s parents, whose reactions to events might have been the most human of all.
However, The Fault in Our Stars is primarily a love story, and it’s that aspect of the book that felt the weakest to me. I love a romance as much as anyone, but the relationship between Hazel and Augustus just didn’t resonate with me. I’ll just come right out and say it: Augustus is too perfect. I’ve seen him described elsewhere as a “manic pixie dream boy,” which I think is fair. While Hazel felt like a rounded and interesting character, Augustus felt more like an ideal. From his gorgeous good looks to just the right balance between jock and nerd to the pretentious way he puts unlit cigarettes between his lips, I just never was particularly interested in him. (Yes, I understand that the cigarette thing is a metaphor, but that quirk just felt forced. I did, however, love that Hazel told him off for it the first time he pulled one out.) The doomed romance trope as well as many of the book’s ideas about love were all used well, but the characterization of Augustus was such that they didn’t feel organic.
Perhaps my feelings about The Fault in Our Stars are best expressed by comparing it to the story that it most reminded me of: Titanic. Back in 1997, when I was 13, Titanic was released. It told another doomed romance featuring a male lead who was so perfect as to be uninteresting. The female lead was far more worthy of attention, as was the setting and context for the film, in this case the doomed voyage of the famous ship, the egos responsible for its fate, and the class system in place that dictated the social code of the day. Both the film and this book sparked strong, almost uncharted reactions from many people, and for a time Titanic was seemingly all anyone could talk about, much like things are now with The Fault in Our Stars. I don’t mean this comparison to be an insult either to the book or the film, as I generally think that both are excellent works of art that are worthy of attention, but the public reaction as well as my personal reaction to each feels similar.
Part of my problem may be the fact that I’m a straight man who is almost 30. I was never inclined to fall in love with Augustus, using Hazel as a vessel for myself as a reader to vicariously live out a life-changing romance. Even setting that aside, I might have enjoyed the book more when I was a teenager, trying to figure out what love means in the real world where nothing is guaranteed. As a married adult, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on how some of these things work, and I have no doubts either that true love exists and that it is worth pursuing no matter how much pain to which we open ourselves.
The most interesting aspect of the story might be those dealing with Peter Van Houten, the mysterious author of Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction. I could completely relate to Hazel’s feelings toward the book, as we all have books that mean more to us than we’re even able to express. The twist upon actually meeting him and discovering that he’s not what they imagined was really well done and surprising, and I liked both what the story did with the character and how that encounter affected Hazel and her outlook.
In the end I’ll remember The Fault in Our Stars more for the way it handled its context and its protagonist than for the love story at its heart. And while the book may not have spoken to me the way it has to others, I still think it’s an excellent book, and I’m thrilled that it means so much to so many. I’m glad I read it, particularly before the film came out, though I probably won’t be returning to it again anytime soon. I’m happy that from now on whenever I see “Okay” online, I’ll know what it really means.