I've complained a bit about the time I spent over the last several days watching my computer try to run Windows Movie Maker, with less-than-reliable success. (Part of this is likely because it's a pretty basic program, and another part is undoubtedly that my computer isn't tricked out with all kinds of extra memory for tasks like video editing.) There was one upside to the time I spent not writing, though: I passed quite a lot of the time I was waiting for the computer to do stuff reading John Green's The Fault In Our Stars.
Spoilers follow, so I'm putting this after the break.
The Fault In Our Stars is one of those cultural bandwagons I'm only jumping on extremely belatedly. Green's book is extremely popular, and has already been filmed (it's playing now at a theater near you!). But I knew nothing about it, really, except that it was about two teenagers who fall in love in the midst of their mutual struggles against cancer. If that were all I knew, I doubt I'd have bothered, but I've seen enough good press about the book to be curious, and in our recent move, I saw that The Daughter owns a copy. So I gave it a read.
I came armed with tissues...but in the end, I did not need them. This is not an indictment of the book in any way. I was not unmoved by the story, but...well, it turns out that I knew enough about The Fault In Our Stars that there was a large degree to which reading the book felt like waiting for the other shoe to drop. I knew that one of these two lovers was not going to make it all the way to the last page, if not both. And as soon as I opened the book and noticed that it was in first person and figured out which of the two was narrating, well, that narrowed it right down quick.
It's the girl, Hazel Grace Lancaster, narrating. So therefore we know – unless the book takes a really supernatural or spiritual turn at the end – that the boy, Augustus Waters, will die. The book doesn't give us a long drawn-out death spiral for him, though; this isn't one of those cancer stories where the healthy person finds out they have cancer and then they get sicker and then better and then sicker again and then start the long slow drift into death. John Green is after something else here.
As the book opens, Hazel is already at Stage IV. Her ending is already written, and all that's left is however much fighting she intends to do along the way. She's using an experimental new drug that is buying her time, but it's always clear that this is all it's doing. Her thyroid cancer is in her lungs now, and thus she is forever tethered to an oxygen tank. Augustus is a cancer survivor: his cancer has a high survival rate, and the worst it did was require the amputation of his leg. But in an early bit of foreshadowing, someone points out that a cancer "survivor" still has to spend the rest of their days keeping vigilant watch for the disease's return.
Hazel and Augustus – as well as the other fellow cancer sufferers in the book – are all made acutely aware that they are some kind of "other" entity, not really allowed to have full lives, but not yet dead, either. They live in some kind of half-world that is pushed on them from without, a world of support groups and prayers that no one particularly feels are effective uses of time and long bouts of painful treatments and a general acceptance that their lot is to leave the world with so many things undone. For the most part, Hazel seems to accept all this, but she presents to the reader a kind of weary and jaded outlook, a sense that it's all fairly meaningless. And yet, for all her fatalism, there are moments when he very real fears and raw emotions shine through, such as when she reveals that she once overheard her mother say that when she dies, "I won't be a mother anymore." That's an awful burden for a child to bear.
Augustus, however – well, I found Augustus hard to like at first. He comes off as awfully sure of himself, and convinced of the holiness of his own ideas. Augustus Waters is prone to long discourses in which he elucidates at length whatever nifty idea has just popped into his head, and he'll even insist on reciting his new idea before anyone else can say anything at all. He's very sure of the things he thinks, and it feels at first like his own kind of defense mechanism, his carefully-honed impression of a guy who has figured out a lot of things. It's something of a sham, though, and the moments do come when Augustus's fears are laid out: he is afraid that his life will have been meaningless, that he will leave nothing behind to be remembered. He tries to cover this over with cynical talk, but it's easy to see through it. Hazel sure does.
I was not quite enchanted by the book's central "plot", which involves the two young lovers going to Amsterdam so they can quiz the author of their favorite book about what happened after it ended. (He ended the book in the middle of a sentence.) I have to admit that in these scenes, I felt the hand of the author most strongly pushing things along. Green does, though, have the intelligence to not have the Reclusive Author turn out to be a warm genius who has all the answers; instead he is an alcoholic who has pretty much completely given up. He's good at saying things that sound as if they might, on some level, be brilliant and profound, but Hazel and Augustus both see through this and eventually depart in anger. They're not done with this guy yet, though, and he pops up again as Augustus reveals his dark secret: that his high-survival-rate cancer has returned with a vengeance, and he's going to be on the bummer end of those statistics.
Augustus fades from the book fairly quickly, and Green is wise enough not to draw this out. There's no final bedside farewell scene when everyone holds hands and Augustus quietly slips away. His death comes quickly, after a brief battle that doesn't seem at all to have any hope whatsoever. Nor should it, really. This is all very wise on Green's part: after all, if this book is Hazel's narration, it's clear that she would want to focus on the happier memories and breeze through the bad ones, to a certain extent. Even there, though, it's not as if it reads like a defense mechanism. Hazel is someone for whom death is a concrete fact, but who also refuses to allow it to dominate everything, even when it does.
I struggle to describe my response to The Fault In Our Stars. It manipulates, but its manipulations felt honest to me. The emotions seem real and genuine, not forced, and even during the "literary quest" subplot, which does feel a bit shoehorned in, Green avoids the temptation to turn the man into a guru with life-altering wisdom. Green's dialogue occasionally reads like writing – particularly when Augustus is speaking – but most times, the talk in this book is so natural that it achieves the dream of conveying vocal inflections with no adverbs and no attribution verbs other than "said". One could do a lot worse than read this book just for the lessons in crafting dialogue alone.
Perhaps it's my own life experience coming to bear, but as delicate and lovely as the love story between Hazel and Augustus is – and I can totally forgive John Green for writing it so that their first and only real date is a dinner at a waterside cafe in Amsterdam, with flower petals fluttering through the air – I find myself most haunted by Hazel's parents. They aren't really fully-shaped characters, which is appropriate since at Hazel's age we simply don't see our parents as fully-shaped people. Her mother's fear, though – "I won't be a mother anymore" – is real. That's a real thing, folks. That's what it feels like. Later on, it turns out that Hazel's mother has been making her own preparations for what is to come, and making plans for afterward so she does not simply end up staring at the walls through a grief-filled existence. This does give Hazel some small degree of comfort, but she can never truly know what things are going to be like for her parents when she is gone, and neither can her parents. That particular emotional hole may well be the deepest a person can be plunged into, even when you know full well that it's coming. This isn't criticism, by the way – I'm not suggesting that John Green has missed something here by not focusing on the parents. Given the literary structure and focus he selected, he couldn't focus on the parents. But that's where my emotional sympathies are inexorably drawn, for reasons that I can't really avoid.
Ultimately The Fault In Our Stars is both a hopeful book and a fatalistic one. We can't flinch from the fact of our temporary existence, but we also shouldn't flinch from the experiences that make our temporary existence bearable. In the end, Augustus writes to Hazel in words that he has almost certainly known will not be read until he is gone:
You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.
I don't think it's entirely coincidental that the words Hazel uses to affirm the last expressed hope of Augustus Waters are words commonly used in our culture to affirm marriage.