16 Jun 2014

Book Review: The Fault In Our Stars

In a generation captivated with 'dystopian' fantasy young adult novels, no 'vanilla' drama novel has captured the attention of millions of young adults quite like the sleeper hit by self-acclaimed ‘nerd’ author, John Green. His book, The Fault in Our Stars came out of humble beginnings to become quite the page turner. While his previous books like Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns were well received, nothing could have foreshadowed how huge this new book would become. It is now a universally loved (and hated) and has earned comparisons to Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember, only mushier. With the anticipated theater release of a film adaptation of the book, I decided to set aside my very strong opinions concerning the book’s subject matter and read it with an open mind. This is my review.
SPOILERS AHEAD (Duh! This is a review after all.)

The book tackles the very delicate topic of cancer among teenagers and how emotions and cancer are usually a volatile and powerful mix. The book’s main character, Hazel Grace Lancaster is a 17 year old survivor of lung cancer, survivor because her form of lung cancer cannot be cured but only kept from spreading by a controversial drug that needs to be constantly administered. As a result of this, Hazel is in bad shape at the start of the book, having to go around with an oxygen tank. She is part of a support group for young cancer sufferers and survivors and is friends with Isaac, a survivor and sufferer of a rare and incurable form of eye cancer. Through Isaac, she meets Augustus Waters, a former cancer survivor, self-professed virgin and all around good guy with a hot body and short one leg, amputated as part of the treatment for his cancer. They bond over a shared interest in a book by a Dutch Author about a girl dying from cancer (trust me, there is a LOT of cancer in this book) and before long, Hazel is trying and failing to fend Augustus off from falling in love with her because she feels she will eventually die and leave him to suffer after her a la A Walk to Remember.

An Imperial Affliction, the book they bond over (an epistolary style novel that mirrors the book itself) finishes very abruptly with the protagonist disappearing mid-sentence. It is something that Augustus and Hazel Grace argue over and eventually decide to ask the author Paul Van Houten about. Van Houten is very hard to find, having secluded himself from modern technology and refused all correspondence with fans of his book. By luck or providence, Hazel Grace is able to make contact with him and after a lot of prodding by she and Augustus while they fall in love, Van Houten through his assistant agrees to meet with Hazel Grace. Augustus in a gesture of gentlemanliness and of course love, makes it possible for him and Hazel Grace to travel to the Netherlands where Van Houten currently resides to meet up with him and get closure on the characters of An Imperial Affliction, the book of interest. Hazel and Augustus go on a date in the Netherlands (cutesy) and meet Van Houten who turns out to be a very unpleasant man. He refuses to tell Hazel what happens to the characters of her beloved book. Afterwards Augustus suddenly falls ill and reveals to Hazel that his previously cured cancer has returned and is aggressively attacking all his vital organs. The book races to its end with you the reader wondering who is going to die first.

I won’t tell you who dies at the end, but I will tell you that the person who dies won’t come as a surprise to you at once you start reading. Even with an open mind, I found myself conflicted about the Fault in Our Stars, the characters come pre-packaged with such massive flaws (terminal cancer) that my opinion of them was formed for me. From the very first line, Hazel was framed as frail and near death, so everything she did and said I filtered from those lens. I would have preferred if the cancer came later. To me it felt like what my friend Ranti Olaose called ‘torture porn’ where you know something terrible will happen to your main character but you read just to feel all of that vicariously. 

Also nearly all the characters in the book had terminal cancer, so the end was pretty much set in stone. Barring that, John Green managed to take a tired trope and give it a somewhat new lease on life. There were a few really tender moments, and the side plot with Van Houten, though contrived gave us the readers some respite from all the cancer melancholy. Also, this book has so many quotable lines such as ‘I fell in love like you fall asleep, slowly then all at once’ and ; that I think is what gives this book its life, not the cancer or the characters; it’s the unbelievably good dialogue that really sells. While the things happening to Hazel and Augustus are very contrived, the way they feel and the things they say aren't, and that makes all the difference.

I didn't cry myself (because I've read far more hard-core stuff) but I would highly recommend The Fault In Our Stars (along with a box of tissues) as lonely, lazy summer read, for those days when summer feels to happy and you need some melancholy. 

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