Thoughts on “The Fault in Our Stars”

It has been a shamefully long time since my last post–my apologies! Even though I haven’t been blogging, I’ve been doing plenty of reading, thinking, and writing. From Final papers to personal statements (and wedding speeches!) it feels like writing is all I have been doing for the past seven months! But enough excuses. I just read  The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Penguin Books Limited, January 2013). It was a beautiful book and I’m sharing some of my thoughts about it in this post.

I was yearning for “light” reading and I am huge sucker for romance. Somehow I ended up choosing a novel about teenagers with cancer. Romance, check! Light, not at all.  This book may be categorized as “young adult” fiction, but I think it is a worthwhile read for anyone. At times heartbreaking, at times humorous, and often both at once, this story transcends age. The protagonists are teenagers, but this story is not about “coming of age” –it is about coming to terms with death, and coming to terms with the life you have lived. We are all going to have to come to terms with death. For Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters, the time comes tragically too soon.

Many reviews praise Green’s handling of the subject matter, and I read the book partially out of curiosity: how does one write about terminal illness and “boy-meets-girl” in a way that isn’t maudlin or trite? I think Green achieved this by not making cancer the focus of the book. It’s always there, in Augustus’s prosthetic leg and Hazel’s oxygen tank, but disease doesn’t define the characters in a tiresome and limiting way.  Perhaps this illustrates the power of writing to illuminate something otherwise invisible. The novel shows how illness can be conspicuous and draw unwanted attention, but in words printed on pages, the characters have the opportunity to be seen as so much more than their diagnoses.

In the simplest of terms, I would describe TFIOS as  a story about how literature affects people (and what English major wouldn’t love a novel about that?). Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction (shout out to Emily Dickinson) is about a girl who has cancer and Hazel is utterly enthralled by the way the author (this is not a real book) writes about the disease. This book ends mid-sentence, and she desperately wants to know what happens to all the characters, and has written the author several times to find out. At first I found her obsession a bit simplistic –why do you really need to know what happened? What makes you think that the author has an ending for them? In school, especially this past year, I have been trained to challenge my very desire for these answers. So I did this for Hazel too, and I think that her preoccupation with the “afterwards” reflects the way that she, with her terminal diagnosis, “misses the future.” She worries about her parents. She worries about being “a grenade” and hurting Augustus by dying.  She is concerned about what will happen when her story ends. I’m not really a fan of books-in-books, and the author, Van Houten, is the most unpleasant part of the novel. Yet this “function” for An Imperial Affliction and Hazel’s obsession with its ending is what makes TFIOS incredibly sad. A lump rises in my throat even now, perhaps because of my propensity to daydream all the time. I imagine the future–who doesn’t? But I am in my daydreams of the future. Hazel is not in hers.

As Google will tell you, the title refers to a line from Cassius to Brutus in Julius Caesar, and the title of the fake book refers to a poem by Emily Dickinson. In this day and age, you don’t have to have remembered the line, or be well-versed in Dickinson to know that these are allusions (although I strongly believe familiarity affects one’s emotional response). Do a Google (or Bing, whatever) search of “An Imperial Affliction.” Emily Dickinson’s poem “A certain slant of light” is now forever tied (at least via the internet) to the title of a fake book (and TFIOS). The first page is actually all hits related to the fictional book. I can’t decide if this is strange or cool. Probably both. Maybe people who read TFIOS will go read or reread the poem, leading to a newfound appreciation for Dickinson. I also like that, in a novel published in 2013, teenagers battling terminal illness challenge the assertion that “the fault is not in our stars, but ourselves”, engaging in a dialogue with Shakespeare, as well as a story that was thousands of years before Shakespeare. Just as the literature of the present responds to (or is inspired by) the literature before it, intertextuality allows the “old literature” to be be considered in a new context–this is exciting to me.

There are many poignant and insightful moments that I would like to explore, but I’ll stop here for now. If you haven’t read the book yet, you should! It is a quick read, but one that is not soon forgotten. Just keep a box of tissues close by.



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