“Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy. Outlasting death. We all want to be remembered. . . .”
The Fault in Our Stars, p. 310
At 17, Hazel Grace Lancaster is a voracious reader with intimidating smarts and a wicked sense of sarcasm. (Wicked in the sharp sense, not the cruel one.) She is also a cancer survivor. Perhaps “cancer sustainer” might be a better way to put it. While a miracle drug keeps her tumors at bay, she will never go into full remission, and every day she struggles to breathe as toxic fluid fills her lungs.
The result is a sort of half-life. Hazel does things normal teenagers do: She drives, attends classes, rolls her eyes at her parents. But she is bound to a portable oxygen tank, she frequents the emergency room, and she has no idea how long her life will last. Yes, this last point is true of everyone. But unlike most people, Hazel lives under the tangible weight of this unknown, and it understandably affects the way she lives and views the world.
Enter (good-looking) Augustus Waters. Dreamy, (maybe) just as smart, and (almost) as sarcastic as Hazel, he is a cancer survivor and has the prosthetic leg to prove it. The two meet at a cancer support group for teens. At first Hazel can’t believe he takes notice of her, due to the aforementioned good-looking dreaminess, but the two quickly connect through their mutual wry wit and shared sense of support-group-loathing.
What follows is a story of love and pain, humor and sorrow, hope and hopelessness that far surpasses a typical teen-angst romance. In fact, I didn’t even realize The Fault in Our Stars was considered “young adult fiction” until I couldn’t find John Green’s other books in the “regular” fiction section of the library.
I was impressed with the way Green not only captured the voice of teen culture, but also had me truly invested in the lives of his two young protagonists. Not simply in their relationship and struggles, but in the questions they raise in the process of navigating both. The Fault in Our Stars is smart writing at its best. The banter flies between the characters, and the way in which thematic elements and ideas are discussed is as thought-provoking as it is challenging. There were many moments where I paused and reread not simply because it was “so good,” but because it was so deep. (Another reason my jaw hit the floor when I learned this book is considered young adult fiction.)
Green puts skin on the big questions that surround life and death: young, wounded, hasn’t-lived-enough-won’t-live-much-longer-already-lived-a-lifetime skin that speaks with the green wisdom and jaded hopefulness that results when youth meets disease. One moment is laugh-out-loud-funny while the next seems to call for hushed awe, enriching the thematic illustration of the oft-changing, sometimes seemingly precarious nature of our lives. In addition to life and death, The Fault in Our Stars touches on themes of relationships, love, purpose, and individual worth and significance.
The Fault in Our Stars contains cursing and derogatory language, as well as conversations about sex and one non-graphic sex scene. It is also irreverent and questions the existence of God. However, I would recommend it to all but the most conservative reader. Why?
Because, if you have teenagers in school, it’s more than likely they’ve heard of John Green and his books. “Trendy” and “trending” are two things this reviewer could never claim to be, but John Green is both. His other books (An Abundance of Katherines, Looking for Alaska, and Paper Towns) have all won awards, and the video blog he shares with his brother, Hank, has an international audience of “nerdfighter” followers. I admit: Upon checking out the vlog, I was slightly (read: tremendously) overstimulated . . . but I’m a self-proclaimed Luddite, so mine probably shouldn’t be the last word you take on the matter.
Despite my lack of interest in the scope of his vlogdom, Green’s online voice only supports the narratives of his books: He is smart, witty, up on pop culture, thoughtful, and most importantly, putting words to the thoughts and questions of teenagers everywhere.
Your teen is either wondering the same sorts of things that Hazel wonders, or is surrounded by friends, classmates, and peers who are. Being able to discuss the themes and ideas in a book such as this one might be as important for their social survival as their Christian witness. I realize that, in light of eternity, the latter is endlessly more important than the former. But for better or worse, when you’re 16, the former is still a pretty big deal. Being able to engage with your peers and propose thoughtful insight into hard ideas and questions is an important life skill no matter how old you are or what you believe. The young believer who is comfortable doing so not only matures his or her character but also deepens his or her faith.
I have a feeling this is the type of book that parents (Christian or not) might see their kids reading but never pick up themselves; this is very unfortunate. A book like The Fault in Our Stars is rife with conversation starters and opportunities to engage your teens (and maybe even their friends) and find out what they really think about faith, eternity, and Jesus. I commend the parents who pick up this book, wade through the vernacular they don’t understand, choose not to be put off by a little cussing and crude language, and instead look through the eyes of today’s teens to better understand what they’re asking about life, what they’re thinking about death, and how they feel they fit in the span that lies between.
Image copyright Dutton Juvenile. Review copy obtained from the reviewer's local library.
Annie Provencher is a writer in Virginia.