Plot/Story: What’s that old saying? Laughter is the best medicine? John Green, of all people, certainly understands that. The Fault in Our Stars is a rather tragic tale of two young lovers, both of whom are suffering from fatal and debilitating illnesses. They meet each other at a Support Group where neither wants to be, and there begins the wild, mad ride that is: “Hazel and Augustus.” As Green explains in his Author’s Note, and again in the Afterward, this is a book of fiction – a book of realistic circumstances and realistic characters, but wholly imagined. Even the drugs and treatments mentioned are created by the author; all this to say, this is not a story about cancer or the treatment of cancer: it is a story about life and living. This story is about being a parent and a friend. It is about being sick and about being healthy. It is about the many different ways that many different people deal with their own grief, some coming out stronger and more focused than they could have imagined, while others sink deep into a dark and dangerous depression that is nearly impossible to escape. This book is about freedom, the chance we all have to live life the way we want to live it, no matter how short and painful that life may be. Circumstances happen, but they do not define us; what defines us is how we meet those circumstances; and that is what we will be remembered by.
Characterization: One of Green’s strengths is creating believable characters, people we could recognize in our own real worlds. They are loveable or despicable, but we adore them all for the very fact that they are “right;” they fit the world he has created and they serve a purpose in the grand scheme of things. The Fault in Our Stars is no exception to this Green-rule. From our main character, Hazel, who is sick but refuses to let that define her, to her parents – who are strong and weak, open and secretive; from Augustus, who is so consciously self-absorbed that he (and we) are actually able to enjoy his ego, even if his perfection is a bit irritating at times, to Isaac and Van Houten, minor characters who make a big impact on Hazel’s life and on the story itself. Each of their stories is connected, in some way, and spending time with them will bring laughs and tears, anger and fear. The only small complaint I have is that the two main characters are a bit too brilliant. This is a theme I’ve noticed rising in young adult fiction, lately – teenagers who are so smart, and so wise, pop culture philosophers with the vocabularies of Ivy League undergraduates. It makes the story more interesting, sure, and it helps the readers learn a bit (if they’re paying attention) but it undermines the believability aspect just a bit, for me. It also caused the distinction between Hazel and Augustus to blur a bit – at times, they seemed to be almost the same person, because they spoke the same way, had the same sense of humor (elevated and clever), and hoped the same lofty hopes. Maybe all the teenagers Green knows are wordsmiths and geniuses, but in my experience (now and as a teenager myself) these were few and far between. Minor irk – but an irk, nonetheless.
Prose/Style: Green’s wit and charm ooze out onto the page in such an effortless way; it’s almost as if the reader is sitting in a room with him, listening to him chatter on. There’s a difference between writers and storytellers, and Green is absolutely a storyteller. His cadence and rhythm are beautifully constructed and timed. He delivers punches in the right moments, and then allows his readers to catch their breath. The pages are lined with humor and messages of beauty, hope, strength, courage and individuality. I became a fan of his style when I read Looking for Alaska years ago, because it was just so very honest. He proved me right with Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and he makes me feel like a master critic these days, because I’m so right about his prose being so wonderful (see – it’s all about me!). Although the story is a heavy one, it is not despondent. Some of the characters suffer a hopeless fate, but they do not succumb to it. There is a lighter message woven through the pages, to embrace the inevitable and leave the world behind you a better place for having done so; this, coupled with Green’s unique way of crafting a narrative, is what turns the pages and makes the book almost un-put-down-able.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc. Markus Zusak calls The Fault in Our Stars a story about “life and death and the people caught in between.” This is true in a literal and metaphorical way. Some of the characters are quite literally stuck in that “in-between” world, where they are alive, but they know they have little time left. They must decide to either submit to their illness and avoid the world, or choose to live the best possible life they can, with however few moments remain for them. There are others caught in between, though, on that battle ground. Friends and family who are healthy and who have years ahead of them, but who are preparing for a new life, a life without the ones they love, without their sons and daughters, without their friends and lovers. As much as this is a story about cancer and how it impacts people, Green makes it clear that it is not a story about cancer, not in any traditional sense. The cancer sufferers do not go quietly into the good night, with proud and angelic smiles on their faces as they drift softly into oblivion. They are real people; they fight, kicking and screaming. They cry and get angry. They soil themselves, fall down, struggle to get out of bed; they deal with the side-effects of their illnesses but they recognize that these are just side-effects. Life is still happening, because they have the power – until the last – to make it happen.
A story like this leaves the reader thinking: What will the world say about me, when I’m gone? How will I be remembered? That power is mine and mine alone.
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