Hazel Grace Lancaster has terminal cancer that is temporarily held in check with an experimental drug. When her mom thinks Hazel is depressed, she insists that Hazel attend a support group for teenagers like her with the same disease. There she meets Augustus Waters, an amputee whose cancer is in remission. Hazel is entranced by Gus's courage and zest for life, but reluctant to get involved with a boy, knowing that she may soon die. The pair end up bonding over Hazel's favorite book, and when Gus uses the wish that was granted to him when he had cancer to help Hazel meet the author, she can't help falling for him. Together, they learn to embrace a once-in-a-lifetime love and live fully in the time that's left for them.
Ever since my teenage daughter declared The Fault in Our Stars her favorite book two years ago, I've been eager to give it a try. I've also heard incredible things about the author, John Green. I finally decided to pick it to complete a book to movie reading challenge I've been working on. What I got was a heart-breakingly brilliant story that really gave me a lot of food for thought. It's a step above a lot of YA fiction in that it can really make the reader think. Hazel and Gus are two extremely intelligent young people, who share a life-threatening illness and spend a large part of the story having intellectual, philosophical, and existential discussions about life and death. There's also a lot of metaphor, much of which I probably won't fully grasp until I've read the book several times. This alone, IMHO, places the book in the literary fiction realm. Yet, for all it's deep thinking, The Fault in Our Stars is an infinitely readable book that approaches the topic of death with humor, dignity, grace, and emotion. Hazel and Gus, in many ways, live life more fully in the brief time that they have than many people can accomplish with a normal life-span, which is inspiring. Even though parts of the story broke my heart, it never devolved into anything too morbid or depressing, so I can honesty say that, in spite of this being a tragic love story, I did actually enjoy it.
Hazel is the first-person narrator of the story, and I have to say that considering the author is an adult male, John Green did an amazing job of capturing the voice of a teenage girl. As Hazel says early in the story, she's never been anything but terminal since her cancer was first diagnosed. Thanks to an experimental drug that has kept her tumors from growing, she's lived longer than expected, but she has difficulty breathing and sometimes her lungs fill up with fluid, causing serious problems. Until her mother insists that she attend a support group for cancer kids, Hazel has been living with depression and in isolation. But that all changes when she meets Gus at support group. He understands her in a way no one else really does and revives a zest in her for the life she has left. I found Hazel to be very likable and relatable. She's an only child, a smart girl who loves to read and is already taking college classes at age sixteen. She's very thoughtful and introspective, worrying about how her impending death will impact those she loves, in particular her parents. I love her for her selflessness in that respect. She's less worried about dying than about hurting people by doing so. I also love how supportive she is of Gus.
Augustus is a charismatic force filled with vibrancy and life. When he meets Hazel at their support group, his cancer is in remission, but he lost a leg to it. In his pre-cancer life, he was a star athlete, but all that means little to him now. For the most part, he's just a normal boy who goes to school, plays video games, and likes to read, which gives him and Hazel a jumping off point in their relationship, as they bond over Hazel's favorite book. I love Gus's sense of humor. He has some of the best lines in the book. He has a way of drawing Hazel out and giving her something to live for. Gus is a boy who pours all of himself into everything he does and loves with his entire being, yet he's totally laid back and easy-going. Hazel may be afraid of allowing herself to become romantically involved with Gus for fear of hurting him when she dies, but he has no such reservations. He just can't help but love her anyway. That's not to say that Gus is a happy-go-lucky guy all the time. Much like Hazel, he's also a deep-thinker, who has pondered life and death. His fear isn't so much death as oblivion, that he hasn't made a difference or left a mark to be remembered by, which is something I can relate to. Even though we only see him through Hazel's eyes, Gus is a character who it's impossible not to love.
As I mentioned before, my daughter read The Fault in Our Stars before I did, when she was going on sixteen. As a parent, I have no problem with that and feel that the book is appropriate for a mature teenage audience. That said, though, it does have some content that could be potentially objectionable. It contains a moderate amount of bad language, but nothing that teenagers probably aren't hearing on a daily basis at school or in the movies they watch. Gus always keeps a pack of cigarettes around, often putting one in his mouth, but he isn't a smoker and never lights up (for him it's a metaphor for exercising control over death), so this hardly counts. Gus and Hazel have some champagne with their dinner, but in Amsterdam, where they are at the time, the legal drinking age for champagne is sixteen, so they aren't breaking any laws. They do, however, get another bottle of champagne once they're back stateside, and in another scene Hazel takes a quick sip of whiskey, but they never overindulge. There's some sexual innuendo on occasion. There is also one love scene, but the love-making is alluded to more so than explicitly described. My personal feeling on it was that they were smart kids who were being responsible about their decision, and with them living on borrowed time, far be from me to say they shouldn't experience a moment of joy in the midst of suffering. Even though I know some of these things will be hot-button topics with many parents, I didn't feel the book was in any way inappropriate for teenagers, but I would still only recommend it for older teens of about 15-16 and up. This isn't just because of the content I've described, but also because of the deep exploration of the topic of death, which younger kids might not grasp and may even find distressing. However, I feel that it was done so in an inspiring way and that many teens might benefit from being able to process death through the safe lens of a fictional story.
Overall, The Fault in Our Stars is a brilliantly written piece of literature that grapples with a sensitive topic using warmth, humor, and realism. Part of the brilliance in any writer's work is his or her ability to make the reader feel like they've gotten to know their characters so that they care about them and are upset if anything bad happens to them. This was one of those rare books that made me shed actual tears. I rarely read tear-jerkers, because I need my happy endings to keep my spirits up. But every once in a while, I like to read stories like this for their depth and importance. While it definitely isn't what I would call a happy story and it did make me sad on occasion, it also made me laugh and inspired me so that I didn't finish it feeling completely down. It also challenged my intellect with it's philosophical nature. Therefore, I highly recommend it for anyone who might be looking for just such a read. I'm happy to say that everything I'd heard about John Green is true. The Fault in Our Stars may have been my first read authored by him, but it most definitely won't be my last.
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