In writing about American author John Green’s most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars (or TFiOS), I am well aware that I am arriving late to this particular party. It was released in January, for one thing, and has spent much of the intervening time on various bestseller lists, but all the same I’d like to share my thoughts on this remarkable book, even if I know I’m not the first to discover it.
Young adult fiction often gets a bad press, but Green is something of an exception, being a critically acclaimed author who writes exclusively for teenagers. That isn’t to say that adults can’t appreciate a book like TFiOS, only that it wasn’t written with them in mind. Anyway, there’s a simple reason why Green is an anomaly within a genre that is so frequently treated with disdain in literary circles: he takes his readers seriously. Green has stated repeatedly his conviction that a) teenagers are a lot more intellectually curious than most adults give them credit for, and b) their feelings are real and should be treated as such. This belief in young people’s capacity and willingness to explore difficult concepts has resulted in TFiOS, which asks plenty of challenging questions and never makes the mistake of underestimating its readers.
The novel is narrated by Hazel, a 16-year-old cancer patient living in Indianapolis. However, while this is in part a book about cancer, it is not what Hazel herself would call a ‘cancer book’. Green focuses instead on Hazel’s relationship with a boy named Augustus and their very different responses to the inevitability of death in a seemingly uncaring universe. Is it better to die with a heroic gesture in order to make your death ‘mean’ something? Or should you tread lightly upon the earth, minimising your impact on people’s lives so as to hurt them less when you have to leave them?
While they’re trying to figure this out, Hazel and Augustus are also trying to make contact with Peter van Houten, the reclusive author of a book called An Imperial Affliction, so that they can find out what happens to the characters after the book ends. Apart from giving a structure to the plot, this quest gives TFiOS a slightly metafictional quality, allowing for an interesting discussion about the relationship between text, writer and reader and whether the author of a work of fiction can be said to have any kind of special insight into its characters that extends past the boundaries of the text.
Still, the thing that makes TFiOS a remarkable book is its ability to be sad, moving, witty, funny, and hopeful, all at the same time. Without ever resorting to the kind of false ‘Encouragements’ so abhorred by Hazel and Augustus, Green approaches a difficult subject with an honesty that is neither depressing nor sentimental. In short, The Fault in Our Stars is far from your average ‘cancer book’.