Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Fault in Our StaersWell, the wait is over. John Green’s new book, The Fault in Our Stars, which went to No. 1 on Amazon as soon as it was announced in June 2011, is here.

To recap, it’s a story told by Hazel, who is sixteen and suffering from terminal cancer. She meets fellow sufferer Augustus at a cancer support group and an unlikely friendship blossoms into a somewhat bumpy romance,  as they go in search of an author whose book has been an inspiration to Hazel.

There has been a huge amount of buzz about this book, and I think the more than 150,000 people who bought the book will think the wait was worth it.At an emotional level,  I think it’s  a terrific book: I read it, mesmerized, in one sitting. It is intensely moving, but at the same time the least sentimental treatment of terminal illness and dying that I can remember reading in a long time. Much of this is due to the beautifully economic dialogue of all the characters, and the point of view in which the narrative is written: Hazel’s. Hazel loathes the traditional cliché of the brave and selfless sufferer, and her acerbic voice squelches any incipient mawkishness that might threaten to turn the story into a Love Story wannabe.

Given the central subject matter, this book is amazingly ‘positive’. There’s something irresistible about Hazel and Augustus, and their relationship is somehow uplifting; packed with whimsy (the scene where Gus and Hazel write an ad for her disused swing set is just one example), and pithy conversation between two people who discover to their joy that they utterly ‘get’ one another. Nothing beats that feeling of ‘connection’, not even a sweetly fumbling sex scene, in which the reader gets just enough information, and no more. Sex is put in its place in the relationship: ‘it was probably the longest time we’d spent together without talking.’

One of the most important discussions in this book is that of the ‘illness consuming the person’ and the fight that many people suffering from chronic or terminal illnesses have when it comes to the perceptions of those around them. To most people, cancer is all the more confronting when it strikes young people, and the inevitable assumptions of patient endurance of imminent suffering and eventual death arise.  Literature is full of such ‘peaceful’ deathbed scenes. But they are a cliché, and this story exposes them as just that.

John Green makes a powerful and moving argument that this sort of existence is not what these kids actually want. Hazel, Augustus and Isaac struggle continually to be ordinary teenagers with the right to act out, to make bad jokes, to sulk, to yell and scream about all aspects of their lives, not just their illness. They aren’t in denial; every day they live surrounded by the regimens of treatment for cancer, and at times it isn’t pretty. Hazel and Augustus understand all too well the nature of their treatment –  tubes and machines hooked up to prevent lungs drowning in their own fluid,  the toxicity of chemo drugs that erode a once-beautiful body into skin over skeleton. Above all, they don’t want to be pitied.

It is such a complicated issue: whether to empathise? How much empathy? Can you really understand unless you’ve been there yourself? And what about when it comes to funerals and social expectations? When does truth become cruelty? The reader gets a glimpse into how far Hazel has travelled emotionally and philosophically when she puts away her unflinching but truthful eulogy to Augustus, even though she knows that he would have preferred it to the platitudinous ‘Encouragements’ that she recites to make his parents happy. ‘Funerals, she decided, were for the living.’

There are no rule books, no clear answers, and the author gives his readers the credit of allowing them to arrive at these ‘inconclusions’ themselves. He knows his readership so well, acknowledging their intelligence by the way in which the medical information is presented in a non-patronising, unsparing, detailed manner. But this is still a book by John Green with its usual eccentric collection of offhand references to everything from poetry to Maslow and Venn diagrams.

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