Arts & Entertainment, Last Word

The Fault in Our Stars

When I first heard this book’s title, I had two subsequent thoughts. The first recognized the reference to the quotation by Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” I next mused that Cassius would be spinning in his metaphorical grave these days. As Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus rump-shake their way to stardom, we so-called underlings—managers, bank tellers, teachers, nurses, and such—live quiet lives of hard-working routine while watching their faked reality-star shenanigans light up TV screens at night. The author, John Green, has a more profound point than mine, although related. In his highly popular young adult book The Fault in Our Stars, his protagonists yearn to be more than they are, which is teens with cancer who meet each other at a support group in a church basement, as far away from stardom as they might imagine possible.

Hazel Grace Lancaster has a form of thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs, and she wheels an oxygen tank to attend the depressing group that their testicularly challenged group leader and cancer survivor says takes place in “the literal heart of Jesus.” One day she comes in part to see her equally depressed friend Isaac, who has lost an eye to cancer. There she meets a boy named Augustus Waters, who catches her own eye through staring at her as if he’s seen a ghost. A former basketball star who has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, Augustus is like no one she’s ever met: a sarcastic, attractive seventeen-year-old on her wave-length, who wins her over with such arguments as those against the misuse of the word “literal.” He sees her as a young Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta and invites her to see the movie. When she says yes, she has said yes to many conversations discussing their impending mortality and status as stars, underlings, or something in-between.

Occasionally I read young adult novels because they are a hugely popular genre, with a large crossover to an adult audience. The conversations between Hazel and Augustus are not particularly realistic for your average seventeen- and sixteen-year-olds, but young people fighting to experience youth’s fruits in the face of impending mortality are often going to be more mature than average, and perhaps employ fairly fruity language in their profounder than ordinary discussions.

Yet their adult, and weirdly reassuring discussions of the notions of death, oblivion, and philosophy jar somewhat against some of the author’s plot decisions, such as Augustus’s recommendation that Hazel read a novelization of a video game that he likes, for example. While the author may want Augustus to set himself up as a hero video game figure who wants to take the fall and make an impact, this technique feels overly metaphorical.

While Augustus is a self-professed “big believer in metaphor,” metaphors become clunky when the author hits you with them as if he’s whacking you with a rubber chicken at every other moment. Part of the growing attraction between Augustus and Hazel comes from their discussions of a profound work of literature Hazel loves about a girl with cancer, written by a reclusive author who has moved to the Netherlands. The novel, An Imperial Affliction, ends with no resolution, thereby cluing us in that the character has died. Here again the foreshadowing of our human fate smacks the reader upside the head.

When the two set out for Amsterdam to meet the author of An Imperial Affliction, a nasty and selfish alcoholic named Peter van Houten, their journey seems like a plot contrivance that could have been excised by a skilled editor. Even their romantic encounter at the Anne Frank House feels metaphorically manipulative, a struggle of life against death. It is no surprise to find out that the author received a grant to write in Holland for two months, thus probably guaranteeing its mention in his current work of fiction.

The Fault in Our Stars has some meaningful discussions about the end of life, cancer’s effect on families, and our very human need to make our mark in the world before we die. The two main characters also frequently employ very funny gallows humor, which is necessary to lighten the difficult subject matter. While generally appealing, they never really stood out as stars, as separate voices or characters to me, so I was not moved by the book’s resolution. Had they been their own people, I might have felt much more for each of them. Instead, I felt that I was hearing John Green’s funny and mordant musings on mortality, thoughts that might have been better served in an essay than in a young adult novel like this one. In short, I wish this book had touched my heart as much as it did my mind.

Written by: Miriam R. Kramer

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