REVIEW: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Dear Mr. Green,
The narrator of your novel, The Fault in Our Stars is Hazel, a sixteen year old with stage four thyroid cancer “with an impressive and long-settled satellite colony” in her lungs. Thanks to a drug treatment she calls “the Miracle” Hazel’s cancer has been kept from spreading further. When she leaves the house, Hazel has to wheel a cart bearing an oxygen tank attached to a cannula, a tube that delivers oxygen to her nose.
Hazel doesn’t leave the house much, though. Instead she spends a lot of time in bed, and ponders death, so her mother decides she’s depressed. Hazel doesn’t really disagree (“Depression is a side effect of dying,” she states) but she doesn’t particularly want to do anything about it, especially not the thing her mother wants her to do – attend a support group for teens with cancer. Here’s Hazel’s irreverent description of the support group:
This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying.
The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.
I noticed his because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and the only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus every freaking meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in Christ’s very sacred heart and whatever.
So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story—how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.
AND YOU TOO MIGHT BE SO LUCKY!
So Hazel doesn’t want to go, but her mother insists. Hazel caves “for the same reason that I’d once allowed nurses with a mere eighteen months of graduate education to poison me with exotically named chemicals: I wanted to make my parents happy. There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer.”
Hazel has one friend in support group, Isaac, who lost an eye to cancer. Isaac brings a friend to support group with him, Augustus Waters. Augustus has a prosthetic leg, also thanks to cancer — in his case, osteosarcoma. But he has been cancer free for years, and he comes to support group mostly to give Isaac company.
Augustus is hot-looking and he cannot take his eyes off of Hazel. He and Hazel are both witty and clever, as well as quirky, so they quickly connect.
Augustus invites Hazel to his house to watch “V for Vendetta,” and soon the two them exchange their favorite books. Hazel’s favorite book in the world is An Imperial Affliction, a book about a teen with cancer, but one which eludes all the usual cancer novel clichés. She has read the book countless times and is a bit nervous about sharing it with Augustus, but he gets the book in the same way she does.
And then Augustus does something magical: he manages to get in touch with the book’s reclusive author. An Imperial Affliction, which is written in a journal format, ends in mid-sentence, indicating the narrator has died. But other threads of the story are left untied, and Hazel desperately wants to know what happened to the heroine’s mother after the heroine’s death.
Peter Van Houten, the author of An Imperial Affliction, finally agrees to tell Hazel what happens, but only if she can come to Amsterdam, where he resides. Hazel asks her mother if they can go there, but due to expensive cancer treatments, her parents cannot finance a trip to Amsterdam. The following conversation then takes place between Hazel and Augustus:
I told Mom I wanted to call Augustus to get her out of the room, because I couldn’t handle her I-can’t-make my-daughter’s-dreams-come-true sad face.
Augustus Waters-style, I read him the letter in lieu of saying hello.
“Wow,” he said.
“I know, right?” I said “How am I going to get to Amsterdam?”
“Do you have a Wish?” he asked, referring to this organization, The Genie Foundation, which is in the business of granting sick kids one wish.
“No,” I said. “I used my Wish pre-Miracle.”
“What’d you do?”
I sighed loudly. “I was thirteen,” I said.
“Not Disney,” he said.
I said nothing.
“You did not go to Disney World.”
I said nothing.
“Hazel GRACE!” he shouted. “You did not use your one dying Wish to go to Disney World with your parents.”
“Also Epcot Center,” I mumbled.
“Oh, my God,” Augustus said. “I can’t believe I have a crush on a girl with such cliché wishes.”
As it turns out, Augustus saved this wish “to preserve the integrity of the Wish as an idea.” Now he has at last found something he wants to spend his wish on, and that is going to Amsterdam with Hazel.
Hazel is thrilled, but then she reads the Facebook page of Augustus’s previous girlfriend, Caroline, a girl he met at the hospital who died of cancer. A post written by a friend of Caroline’s shortly after her death contains a sentence which devastates Hazel : “It feels like we were all wounded in your battle, Caroline.”
Hazel realizes that she doesn’t want to be “a grenade,” someone whose death will wound those around her. She does not want Augustus to love her. She does not want her parents to love her. But of course their love is good for her, and even knowing it will wound them, she cannot stop wanting them to love her, too.
Things come to a head when Hazel ends up in the hospital because her lungs need draining (a side effect of the miracle drug). Life is short, and Hazel doesn’t want to spend it all at home when she has the opportunity to go to Amsterdam and meet the author of her favorite book in the world. But if she goes, can she keep Augustus from loving her? And can she keep from loving him back?
I’ve quoted a lot from The Fault in Our Stars in this review, because I liked the witty narration so much and wanted others to get a feel for it, and for Hazel’s character. Augustus is equally appealing, clever and funny. For me this was (obviously) a strength of the novel, but also (perhaps less obviously) a weakness, because there were times when Hazel and Augustus sounded smarter and more erudite than any sixteen year old I’ve ever met.
Not only that but even the side characters sometimes shared this preternatural cleverness. As much as I liked Hazel and Augustus, and found them charismatic, I also felt I could see the author’s hand behind these characters, and others in the novel. There was an artifice to this work, with its self-conscious ironies and its meta references to cancer books, as well as its novel-within-a-novel.
My husband, who read the book with me, pointed out that it was almost constantly awash in metaphorically significant actions and words, and went so far as to use the word “pretentious,” even though he ended up liking the book quite a bit. Personally I don’t feel it’s pretentious, just that there is a visible artifice to it.
I too ended up liking this book, despite its flaws. The title of the novel, The Fault in Our Stars, comes from a passage in a letter Peter Van Houten writes to Augustus while Hazel is in the hospital.
Everyone in this tale had a rock-solid hamartia: hers, that she is so sick; yours, that you are so well. Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed, but it is the nature of stars to cross, and never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ but in ourselves.” Easy enough to say when you’re a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars.
Despite its humor and irreverence, The Fault in Our Stars is ultimately a tale of star-crossed lovers. Although it points out the path taken by “cancer books” and attempts at times to get to the same place by circuitous roads, it does eventually, reach the same place, and unlike An Imperial Affliction, it does not avoid each and every predictable cancer novel turn. It is as much a tearjerker in the end.
Still, I do not always mind a good cry. For its witty narration, its lovable hero and heroine, its sweetness and its unflinching look at mortality, The Fault in Our Stars earns a B from me.
I’d be inclined to cut the author a break on the erudite sixteen-year-olds. Enduring cancer treatment ages you spiritually and emotionally, whatever your chronological age (aside from my personal belief these kids are old souls, to begin with.)
I know they can be very aware of their family’s fear and grief. When my son was going through one treatment so painful he couldn’t keep from yelling, I was out in the hall, crying. Afterward, the nurse came out and said my son wanted her to make sure I was okay, because he knew how upset I had to be. He was seventeen at the time.
Granted, you won’t see grown-up behavior in every case, even among grown-ups. But I could suspend disbelief in this story. It sounds wrenching, even with the very believably mordant humor.
Thanks for an interesting review.
@Mara: It wasn’t the maturity that seemed unrealistic to me, but rather the cleverness. I hear what you are saying though. I’m sure it does mature one a lot to go through an experience like that. And yes, the book is indeed wrenching, especially toward the end.
Great review, Janine! I admit I’ve stayed away from this because JG is often hit or miss with me, and also . . . I’m not sure if I want to read something so heart-wrenching. It’s funny–I can deal with deaths in other genres, but in contemp YA it makes me very sad. Maybe the element of fantasy is ripped away? (With that being said though, I totes love Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, which is super-heartwrenching.)
@Elyssa Patrick: I wasn’t sure I would be able to deal with this one either. As it turned out I was — though it did make me very sad. So I totally understand anyone who chooses not to read it. A lot of the reviews on Amazon are glowing, but for me it wasn’t perfect, so I’m also not sure how it would be for you on the “JG is hit or miss” front.
I loved this book. I had hesitated to read it because i knew it would be sad (and as I am someone who becomes emotionally attached to characters, I knew it would be hard to read). I loved this book (I know i have already written this, but need to say it again). The characters all seemed real (even with their ageless, clever comments and observations…it worked for me. Maybe because these characters seemed like the type who would have been quick thinkers even if they never faced their own mortality, but given their state of being…how could they not be as well-spoken, funny as they were?). i loved the families and other supporting characters. Thank you for posting your review (even if i loved the book more) Hopefully more folks will read the book.
@Nicole10000: I’m glad to hear you loved it so much. There are so many raves for this book on sites like Amazon and Goodreads that I feel out of step with the majority in giving it a B, even though that’s about where it ranks for me.
@Janine: Understood! There are many books I am “eh” to that others LOVE. This one happens to be a book I LOVE for many reasons that you liked it but didn’t LOVE. I was still really happy to see it reviewed here because while it isn’t your typical romance book, it was quite a romantic book and maybe others will give it a go.
I loved this book and had the same response as you did regarding the maturity of the teenagers and the dialogue made me borderline angry in the same way Dawson’s Creek made me angry – no teenager I have ever met talks that way.
But it broke my heart and made me laugh and broke my heart again and I put it down and I sighed and for that reason – for that whole range of emotions it forced upon me – I loved it.
@Molly O’Keefe: It does have a wide (and deep) emotional range. I get why so many people love it, even though I wasn’t quite there.
First up, I’ve been teaching 12-18 age range for nigh on 20 years and I do know a significant number who could match Hazel and Augustus quip for quip. One of the great joys of teaching is rubbing shoulders with students who are smarter than we are! By no means a majority, but a significant minority, and of course, not always the ones with the finest grades.
I read the book when it came out, and loved it. I recommended it to three people – who each recommended the book on to 3-5 more people – and the feedback has been really uniformly positive, even from unexpected quarters, i.e. friends’ fathers, people who never read YA, people who are allergic to cancer books. Weirdly at the time I read it, my bookclub was in a cancer book phase (fiction and non-fiction), and of the four cancer books I read between Jan and March, Fault in Our Stars was the standout.
@Brussel Sprout: I cannot imagine reading four cancer books within three months! I would clobber my book club members if they put me through that. But I can imagine that such an experience might also make the humor at the expense of cancer books in The Fault in Our Stars all the more appealing.
The best explanation I’ve ever seen for the characters in a John Green novel is that they sound the way we all wished/hoped we sounded at that age. I find it adds a pleasantly fantastical element to all of his writing, like magical realism fired directly from the synapses of nerdy teens. But it can be a bit much. This was one of my favorites of his so far, even though it made me cry like an infant.
@Natalie: That’s an interesting explanation. I agree though that the super-clever dialogue can be a bit much.
I might be a bit biased because I love John Green, but as a teenager (I was 18 when this book came out), I think he writes teens very well – there’s no weirdness from outdated or misused slang, and the things they say and talk about and do seem, well, like the things high schoolers would say and do and talk about. Maybe they’re a bit wittier, but I almost feel like it’s an acceptable break from reality the same way no one says “um” or pauses like in real life – it’s not so egregious that it becomes a problem, at least to my mind.
As a fourteen year old, their wit, maturity and erudition didn’t strike me as exceptional when I read it. Some teenagers are capable of talking like a learned human being, although I understand your perspective as this is not true for all cases.
Other than that I really liked your review.
I’m six chapters into this book and so far I 100% agree. If I could describe John Greens writing is that it is like a translucent screen with words on it, you can clearly see the author working away behind the prose, speaking for the characters and setting up the narrative arcs.
Maybe I’m at the wrong age? I’m close enough to my teenage years that I don’t really see my own or any of my peers in the writing and yet I’m not old enough to ignore that though a nostalgia for my teen years.
I like John’s Vlogs though.
I really like that metaphor.
I actually know some teens who are as intelligent if not more so than August and Hazel. However, they only act mature and intelligent in the classroom. Once outside, they whine about tests, teachers, and parents.
@Rose: I don’t doubt that there are equally intelligent teens out there. I just doubt there are any who sound the way Hazel and Augustus sound. Even when people show off their erudition, they don’t sound like that.
Hm I see what you mean, but I have met one teen who does sound like that. He doesn’t purposely flatter himself, but the way he carries himself and speaks about Kierkegaard carries the message. I’m not saying there are a lot of people out there like that, but at least one example exists. There is one major difference though. I wouldn’t say he is more awkward….but he certainly can’t flirt smoothly like Gus or hold up flawless, charming conversations.
@Rose: The flawless charm is part of what I’m referring to. The dialogue was so clever and so cute that it made me aware of Gus and Hazel as authorial constructs.
This book is… i dont know how to say it… it was wonderful,
I actually cried like 5 times while reading it.
I love the quotes, and Hazel’s character and all she said well it was incredible.
And Gus, OMG, he is so sweet and kind and, i dont know, he was a perfect character.
you know sometimes i wish these books were real, because they are so amaizing. but they arent, our world is not like that, though something like this probably happened in real life,but not everyone knows it. Not everyone experiences these feelings.
I swear i was crying it was really good.
oh i have to improve my vocabulary by like a hundred times if i want to describe this right.
anyways John Green, i loved your book!!!
I L O V E D this book, but I admit after I finished it I sat in my room and cried for like 3 days straight, ha. Also, I love this review, it’s amazing!
@Keff: Thanks! I cried after finishing the book, too.
Like many high school students, I haven’t read the book yet and am reading reviews, summaries, and study guide questions to get a feel for it. Another word for what you dislike about his writing might be “contrived.” You are not alone in your feelings; several of my coworkers felt the artifice overwhelmed the charm, as well as the Shakespearean tragedy.
You say you quoted so much to give people a feel for the book, but why did you do so much summarizing? Giving your readers a taste of the style, tone, voice of the novel makes sense for a review, but retelling large portions of plot takes away the motivation to read the book for oneself.
Thank you for review. It has taken me a long time to read this book (almost a year), as it was a subject that hits very close to home. But I am glad that you had posted and archived your review for those who were slow to read. I agree with you that there is some preternatural cleverness which sometimes shows Mr. Green’s hand, and I felt like I was really in their mindset and worlds. But I found it to be a terrific book and so after having read David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, I’m now reading the book they co-wrote several years ago, Will Grayson, Will Grayson.
@Rachel: I’m sorry I remember to respond to this sooner. Thank you for the feedback, I really appreciate it. You’re right, I summarized too much. It’s been so long since I wrote it that I’m not completely certain why, but I suspect it was because this is primarily a romance genre blog and I wanted to give our core audience a sense of what made the book romantic. I’m usually more careful not to spoil than I was in this review though, and I will take your thoughts on the matter under advice.
@Andrew Landis: I’m sorry to hear that this novel hits close to home, but glad my review proved helpful, especially to a reader in your situation. I’m also glad you enjoyed the novel.
I actually LOVED this book. I cried several times (which made reading it kinda difficult). The book made me cry so hard that my eyes were swollen that my co-workers wondered what happened. I noticed that the characters were too clever to be true. But I know such person exists. I just haven’t met one. Can’t wait for the movie on June 6th.
I reread this book a few days ago, and while I definitely liked it better than the first time, I didn’t cry at all. Mostly because I was prepared for the emotional blackmail that this book is. 3.5 stars. Here’s my review:
I believe this book had a magical charm I read up to chapter seven in less than an hour, took a breath and prepared for three more hours ..I knew I would get.into it. I finished in one day 4 hours nonstop every word of this book every character was so perfectly made and said that I just couldnt stop there was a mix of emotions laughter ,crying ..I guess thats what made it beautiful. I got really into it because I saw myself in hazel, in gus.. many people say teens aren’t like this but in my inside I do think this way I believe I just dont express it eith my peers or at home but like everyone else in my innerself I think this wy and it was amazing to see my thoughts written down in a story.I cried for nearly hour aftdr being so atrached to the characters but after all in conclusikn an amazing book very touching and I recommend it to everyone mostly teens!