Sunday, 29 January 2012
|The Fault in Our Stars - Dutton Juvenile|
Published January 2012
“Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 12, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs ... for now.
Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.
Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.” Synopsis from goodreads.com
There are some books that you just cannot prepare for because they will grab you and suck you right in. The Fault in Our Stars hadn’t been on top of my figurative “must read as soon as it’s out” list. To be honest, I was a bit reserved against the idea of a terminally ill main character in a contemporary setting. Especially with a disease that affects so many families – that’s just how it seems to me, though, that everyone knows someone or of someone who has or had cancer. Then the book came out. And somehow I picked it up and more or less didn’t put it down until the end.
This book lives because of its characters and how they are presented like any other person despite their various conditions. It could as easily have been a book about cancer and people. Instead it is a story about people who happen to have cancer. Sure, there is no moment where you aren’t reminded that it affects everyone portrayed. Green manages to show that the disease isn’t what defines the individual but that it is an aspect out of many of their lives.
The story is told from Hazel’s point of view, which is an extremely witty and at times overly mature one. I can understand if some people say that she doesn’t sound like a 16-year-old – most of the time. I also think that not everyone with this perspective on life would develop the same characteristics. However, Hazel seems to me like the sort of person who would have been older than her actual age, even if she had been perfectly healthy.
Augustus is, in many ways, Hazel’s perfect match by being a well-balanced counterpart. The two of them couldn’t develop the relationship they form if one or the other had been anything less than they are. What I mean is that I doubt anyone would have put up with either Hazel’s obsession with An Imperial Affliction, a book (which thankfully is fictional) she religiously re-reads, endlessly theorises about, and has probably analysed in more detail than the average literature professor would do. Nor could anyone stand Augustus’ pretentiousness all of the time.
Isaac, who made his friend Augustus come to cancer support with him in the first place, completes this close group of people who are rarely given such an extensive and insightful voice in fiction. He’s the one I least expected to become fond of if only for the reason that his role is not as big as the others’. Yet he only needs this smaller space to establish himself as a fully developed character and show the sort of friend he is to Augustus and Hazel.
In general a lot could be said about Green’s depiction of relationships within the story and how he uses them to define his characters; but I think no matter how hard I try, I won’t be able to capture the magic of Green’s writing. The fact that even the relationship between Hazel and her father – a really small part in comparison – is so well-captured in just a few exchanges that it made me tear up several times.
This leads me to the next point: Yes, The Fault in Our Stars is a sad story and I recommend tissues in close proximity while reading. However, it isn’t told in a sad manner. And not in a falsely humorous one either. People aren’t sad and depressed all the time no matter their fate. If anything, maybe the terminally ill appreciate the smallest happy moments even more and see the value in them. This could make the book seem fake and overly moral in the “appreciate the small mercies you get” way. But it doesn’t depict its characters only as impressively brave, kind, and inspirational. There is the reality of these kids getting angry, behaving like the petulant teenagers they are, disobeying parents and all that. There is the aspect of cancer being an ugly and disgusting disease with blood and vomit and pain. Green doesn’t sugar-coat any of that, neither the light nor the dark moments. And this is what, to me, makes this book as touching as it is.
There is so much more that could be said about this book, beginning with the title and how perfectly I think it fits the story because, in contrast to Shakespeare’s play, the fault is indeed to be found in the stars rather than in the characters.
I won’t go into the story as it is the author’s wish that every reader should be able to experience the story spoiler-free with all its unexpected ups and downs – so much so that the book seems as unpredictable and at times insidious as the disease it features.
All added up, John Green proves to be the master wordsmith he is often said to be. It could be over the top but in this instance it is one of the aspects which make this book an absolute treasure – a beautiful narrative about how no one can choose when their time comes, just how to spend the time given. And choosing to live – despite everything.