This one was easy:
...because of all the feelings. And the tears.
Hazel Grace is dying. She’s been dying for quite a while from the cancerous tumours submerging her tired lungs and she is quietly resigned to the end of her personal story. This doesn’t stop her from getting a bit depressed (an understandable side effect, as she so succinctly puts it, of dying) and, some years after her initial diagnosis of fatality, she finds herself attending a support group for cancer kids. It’s not really her bag but she gets through each session exchanging silent cynicisms with one-eyed Isaac. Until the day that Isaac turns up with a friend, cancer-free Augustus Waters, who sweeps into Hazel’s life on one leg, a wave of bad video games and an overwhelming lust for life. He quickly inveigles his way into Hazel’s one great passion, the book An Imperial Affliction, and her desire to find out what happens after the last page.
Hazel is a character who jumps of the page and is far from the atypical Young Cancer Sufferer of other books. Partly, this is due to the fact that she has no hope of survival. From the day she was first diagnosed she has known that her illness was terminal and it is only due to a wonder that she continues to live at all. Additionally, Hazel does not Live Every Day As Though It Were Her Last. Rather, she watches a lot of America’s Top Model. She doesn’t feel the need to do great things but rather wishes to leave as few ripples as possible. She’s OK with her fate, she really is, but she’s not so sure about the fate of those left behind. Never more clearly is this seen than in her fascination with An Imperial Affliction and particularly in her desperation to know what happens to its protagonist’s mother. Hazel is fascinating and massively sympathetic without ever really engendering pity. She’s simply a unique and marvellous creation.
Augustus is less likely to watch life from the side lines. Having survived a pretty survivable cancer almost intact he is desperate to make his mark. He doesn’t know how he’s going to do it, but he’s driven to affect the world in a way that Hazel is not. He seems to be constantly searching for meaning and the way in which he latches on to An Imperial Affliction and its ideas is unsurprising. To say more about Augustus would detract from the pleasure you will find in reading him for yourself so suffice to say that he is a character of utter luminosity, he shall be left for you to discover alone. The list of additional characters is small yet they strong. From the minor (hilariously tragic and testicle-less Patrick) to the major (Isaac, eyeless and lovelorn) to the vital (every parent in the book) they are beautifully realised. Particularly mention, however, must go to Van Houten, a man introduced largely through the excerpts of his book, An Imperial Affliction. He is a tour de force of belligerent insanity and searing truth.
John Green has gone out of his way to avoid the tropes so often seen in Cancer Books (to the point where his characters witheringly decry the stereotypes throughout); apart from anything else, The Fault in our Stars is extremely funny. Even in its saddest moments, Green is able to surprise you with a scene that will have you crying with laughter. But not just laughter. Lest we forget, this is a book about a dying girl and if it doesn’t have you in floods of tears at least once then, quite frankly, you should consider the fact that you may not actually have a soul. Particularly moving are the portrayals of parents who deal constantly with the prospective loss of their only child. Hazel’s father is especially heart-breaking as a man prone to tears and reading this book as a parent was particularly difficult. The writing is, as one might expect from Green, excellent be it describing children leaping from bone to bone or petals strewn on water.
The Fault in our Stars is by far the most accomplished book yet from King of the Internets, Green. While all of his previous work has been impressive, there has been a tendency on his part to use his super-smart teen protagonists as a mouthpiece for what you have to assume are Big Ideas that have been rattling around his own conciousness. It’s always worked but has always left me with the suspicion that I’m really reading John Green being John Green (which, admittedly, is massively enjoyable). However, in TFIOS, he avoids this almost entirely. Hazel is his first female protagonist and he’s given her a fantastically strong, utterly unique, narrative voice. Yes, her and Gus are very bright and yes, they have a lot of deeply philosophical thoughts on the world but John Green saves the real existentialism for Van Houten and An Imperial Affliction, a book I very much hope he actually writes one day.
This is a book that feels like it should carry some sort of message in its worthy pages, but I don’t know it if does other than whatever the individual reader takes from it. Green is clearly a man who Thinks Deeply and would like us all Think Deep Thoughts. Well, mad props, Mr Green, you got me. On finishing The Fault in our Stars, I wiped away my tears and stepped outside to observe the universe wondering if it, in turn, observed me but above all awed at the ineffable elegance of it all. I hope that, on finishing this extraordinary book, you do too.
This review was first posted on The Mountains of Instead in 2013.