Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green

When I decided to read The Fault in Our Stars, I was coming off a reading hiatus. You know that empty space between books that no book seems capable of filling? I was stuck there in the thick of the reading hiatus malaise. Then, thanks to an Entertainment Weekly subscription I received for Christmas, I read there was a movie coming out based on the Young Adult book, The Fault in Our Stars. And of course there was one of those BuzzFeed lists that told me what I should read before the movie comes along. One can argue that reading a book first can ruin a film experience, but more often than not I find that having read the book enhances my viewing pleasure, because I know more of the story than the medium of film can portray.

While the book falls into the Young Adult genre, the intellectual complexity of the novel really surprised me. John Green is not a man who writes lightly. There's nothing I love more than being completely surprised by a story. References to Kierkegaard, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams elevates this epic cancer romance. An epic cancer romance sounds just how it feels while reading it. And if you should endeavor to take this story on then you should know that it possesses the capacity to make you laugh and cry within a three page spread. 

Hazel Grace Lancaster has had thyroid cancer since she was 13 and knows she is dying. The story is told from her sixteen year-old perspective. So right off the bat you can imagine the emotional complexity of a kid with cancer trying to exist in a world with death looming over her oxygen tank dependent life.

Hazel Grace was too sick to go to school, so she's been isolated in her illness along with her parents. Since the creation of a new drug she has gained back some quality of life and got her GED and is enrolled in college courses, so her exposure to literature and philosophy is advanced which provides some reasoning for why she quotes the things she does and how closely connected to reading she is as an escapist activity.

In the face of death she grasps at earthly knowledge to try to understand her own sense of being. She explores the paradox that while she is dying, within her the cancer is growing, surviving, adapting and aiming to reach it's growth potential. And it is this depth of thoughtfulness that Green really excels at when examining the existential dilemma of living with cancer. Hazel Grace has developed her own kind of philosophy about her condition and her life in relation to those closest to her. She's not the dark nihilist of the Rust Cohle variety, but Hazel is an atheist with some pretty clearly defined ideas about death. 

But then comes Augustus Waters. One of the most charismatic characters I have read in quite some time. He is like a breath of fresh air, and not just for the reader who knows they are reading a sad book about teenagers with cancer, but for Hazel Grace, whose social life consists of trips to the doctor to drain the fluid from her lungs, a sad support group and watching America's Next Top Model episodes with her mother. Augustus, a cancer survivor with a partially amputated leg, takes an immediate interest in Hazel Grace and forces their friendship. I use the word 'force' because of Hazel's reservations about entangling another life in her collapsing web of illness. But Augustus is so full of life that his magnetism is something she can't resist. And with death at her back, Hazel Grace is pulled into the adventure that is living life to its fullest.

I obviously don't want to give the book away, but I feel it is important to share that the death of the young is widely explored by this enigmatic couple. Augustus and Hazel experience love like any adult would and maybe even more intensely because they know that their time together is limited. Hazel's character really allows readers to understand how a teenager would worry about her parents after her death since she is their only child. Her attempts to keep her connections at a minimum so as to tread lightly through the remainder of her life without major emotional impact is both sad and authentic. You can understand that she would want to keep the casualties to a minimum. However, her love with Augustus defies all her defenses and she changes the way she looks at the world, at herself, at love and the prospect of infinity and identity.

If you enjoy a book that brings you both joy and sadness, then I suggest giving it a go. I can honestly say I walked away from this one with a bittersweet feeling, tears dried onto my face and a smile on my lips. It will join the club with Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as one of the most emotional reads revolving around characters who stumble around in their voiceless loneliness and isolation by illness until the forces of life and love demand their attention.

For information about the upcoming movie starring Shailene Woodley as Hazel and Ansel Elgort as Augustus click here. 


  1. Excellent review. I have not read the book yet but your review has captured my attention. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading more of your posts

    1. Thank you! If you like YA, I recommended this book. It's more elevated YA, but still very gripping and emotional.