“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once.”
Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.
Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning author John Green’s most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.
Description taken from Goodreads.
TL;DR: This review mostly has to do with my feelings on The Fault in Our Stars after my reread. For a more brief overview of what I love about this story and what I have to say to its critics, take a look at my Monday Musts overview. The review below does contain spoilers.
The best part of rereading TFIOS was getting the movie out of my head.
Up until I did this reread, I didn’t realize how much I visualized Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as Hazel and Gus. Not anything against them, but they, especially not Shai, will never be my Hazel and Gus. That has less to do with them and more to do with the fact that these characters are just too much to be represented by others. They’re their own people, and I don’t think anyone could do justice to the little infinity that Hazel and Gus go through in this book.
Like with every reread, this one opened my eyes to details of the story that I hadn’t noticed before. More than anything else, I truly saw Hazel’s struggle with herself.
‘You are a side effect,’ Van Houten continued, of an evolutionary process that cares little for individual lives. You are a failed experiment in mutation.’
‘I RESIGN!’ Lidewij shouted. There were tears in her eyes. But I wasn’t angry. He was looking for the most hurtful way to tell the truth, but of course I already knew the truth. I’d had years of staring at ceilings from my bedroom to the ICU, and so I’d long ago found the most hurtful ways to imagine my own illness.
As someone who has never been anything other than terminal, she knows she’s going eventually, to the point where Van Houten’s words can’t hurt her. It could be argued that she is hurt and just lying to herself or hiding her pain, but I don’t believe that to be the case. Van Houten is her favorite author, and his portrayal of what it’s like to be a kid facing cancer in An Imperial Affliction is what drives her to get to Amsterdam.
No, her obsession with what happens to the other characters in the story, especially Anna’s mom, is the indicator that Hazel is more concerned with what’ll happen to the people around her when she dies. This is also shown in the way that Hazel doesn’t immediately get into a relationship with Gus out of fear that she’ll hurt him and in Hazel’s underlying conflict with her parents.
‘I’m like. Like. I’m like a grenade, Mom. I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?’
And I would argue that just as much as Hazel’s coping mechanisms reveal her, Van Houten’s reveal him. The way he completely blew off Hazel and Gus in Amsterdam and what he said after Gus’ funeral show a whole other side to the cancer story. I would go so far as to say that TFIOS isn’t a romance novel. It has romance in it, to be sure, but the romance is only a vehicle for the true story, lesson, and lamentation of cancer. It’s a cancer story. That’s it. Period, the end. It’s a story about choosing to live or not to live while facing incredible, terrible circumstances.
As for the writing, no one that Green can’t say the honest truth about cancer.
First of all, underneath Hazel’s wit, sarcasm, and jokes is someone who’s been trying to deal with the idea of her death since she was diagnosed. She’s someone who deeply cares for her parents and friends even though she pushes them away at times, and she doesn’t want to see them hurt. Before meeting Gus, rather than trying to make the most of her life, she tries her best to envision the worst-case scenarios before they can sneak up on her and hurt her. TFIOS is her struggle to live with that prospect instead of simply preparing for it.
But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying.
Second of all, there’s Peter Van Houten. In my memory, he’s the harshest character Green’s ever written. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He sees the world through the most pessimistic lens possible. Green could’ve written about Van Houten’s story and how cancer sucks. Albeit, I’m sure his writing of it would be much more metaphorical and flowery, but that’s a given. Instead of writing that story, Green chose to make TFIOS about Hazel and Gus. Green takes into account every side of the story, from the cancer kids who fight bravely, to the cancer kids who don’t, to the parents who make it all possible, to the strangers on condolences message boards, to the people who live with cancer, to the people who live in spite of it.
I mentioned that TFIOS raises serious questions about romanticizing cancer in my Monday Musts about TFIOS. Part of my desire to reread this story was based in wanting to confirm or deny that. Now, I would deny it.
People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.
While studying for the ACT, I came across a statement that said something to the effect of, “Don’t confuse an author’s tone for the subject matter. The passage might concern something horrific but have a light tone.” This is a similar situation in that some confuse Green’s style with what he’s trying to get across. Ask any John Green fan: all of his books are written the same way. From Paper Towns to An Abundance of Katherines to Looking for Alaska, they have similar patterns in dialogue and character structure. I still wouldn’t lump him in with Cassandra Clare and Rick Riordan, but that’s an entirely different conversation.
Whether he’s talking about falling in love with many girls named Katherine or dying of a terminal illness at the age of seventeen, Green writes the same way. It’s flowery, it’s melodramatic, it contains strange, precocious, sometimes ridiculous characters. This is not unique to TFIOS. I won’t say that Green can’t be romanticizing cancer, but it’s very unlikely. If he is, then I would guess it’s unintentional. His honesty in telling Gus and Hazel’s story shouldn’t be overshadowed by the way he tells the story.
Besides, when you get to the end of TFIOS, things get pretty gruesome. We see charming, self-aggrandizing, pretentious, vain Augustus Waters at his worst. Needless to say, the worst is pretty bad.
Augustus sat in the driver’s seat, covered in his own vomit, his hands pressed to be his belly where the G-tube went in. ‘Hi,’ he mumbled.
People, myself included, have sometimes come to the conclusion that TFIOS was made slightly less than what it could’ve been because of the way it was written. After this reread, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for the story and justified its place as one of my favorite books. The Fault in Our Stars stands out among all YA contemporary, and I hope to be rereading it for a long time after I’ve stopped reading YA as my primary genre and after this blog is over.
To Augustus, and all those fighting cancer out there in one form or another, Godspeed.