“I’m gonna die a virgin” and other worries of gravely ill 12-to-18-year-olds
The Fault in Our Stars. By John Green. Dutton Children’s Books, 313 pp., $17.99. Ages 13 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Sixteen-year-old Hazel Lancaster has metastatic thyroid cancer and wears a nasal cannula attached to a rolling oxygen cart, but former basketball player Augustus Waters thinks she looks like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. Gus has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, but Hazel knows he’s “hot” even if, as she says, he “HAD FREAKING CANCER.”
Will Hazel and Gus get together before the Big C kills one or both of them? Sentimentalists need not fear. A cheery message of this breezy cross between a teen weepie and a romantic comedy –- and one that will no doubt comfort millions of teenagers — is: You’re never too sick to get into someone’s pants.
Hazel and Gus meet in a support group for cancer-stricken 12-to-18-year-olds in the basement of an Episcopal church in Indianapolis. Sparks fly, but in the tradition of old-school romance novels, the teenagers do not lose their virginity until late in the book, when Gus persuades a charity that grants the wishes of sick children to let him take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author. Hazel’s mother — who has come along to Holland as a chaperone — stays conveniently out of the way at any moment that might seem to require her services.
But John Green has more on his mind in his fifth young-adult novel than showing that when you have cancer, it’s natural to think, “I’m gonna die a virgin.” The title of The Fault in Our Stars points to its theme, which inverts Cassius’ message to Brutus in Julius Caesar: When tragedy strikes, the fault often lies not in ourselves but “in our stars.” In developing this idea, Green goes beyond absolving teenagers of blame for their cancers and asks: What does it mean to lead a good life? Hazel and Gus wonder as their health worsens: Is the purpose of life to “repay a debt to the universe” for the gift of having been born, as Hazel believes? Or is to “to leave a mark on the world,” as Gus thinks?
Both teenagers have had cancer long enough to have smart answers and wry familiarity with some of the absurdities of the American view of serious illness. Hazel speaks matter-of-factly about what she calls “cancer perks” — “the little things cancer kids get that regular kids don’t: basketballs signed by sports heroes, free passes on late homework, unearned driver’s licenses” and more. She understands the paradox of “the Last Good Day” cliché in stories about children with cancer, a convention that describes hours “when for a moment the pain is bearable”: “The problem, of course, is that there’s no way of knowing that your last good day is your Last Good Day. At the time, it is just another good day.” And she sees the contradictions in certain aspects of the support groups into which therapists and others push the afflicted. Is it realistic to expect all young cancer survivors to find comfort in praying, as her group does, for members who have died?
Such questions are so worthy that you wish Green had developed them through more believable characters and fewer plot contrivances. Hazel narrates the story in a voice that alternately resembles that of a down-to-earth teenager and an elderly lawyer drafting a will. One moment she’s complaining that “cancer books suck.” The next she’s talking about “my aforementioned third best friend” or an incident “wherein I put my hand on the couch.” Gus, although slightly more credible, uses so many high-flown metaphors that you can’t square his language with his account of himself as an ordinary Hoosier basketball fan who used to be “all about resurrecting the art of the midrange jumper.” The plot veers from reasonably realistic into something close to farce when the teenagers land in Amsterdam and Hazel’s favorite author turns out to be a cruel and drunken misanthrope.
Perhaps most baffling from an award-winning novelist are the dropped storylines, including one that involves a heavy religious motif introduced in the first pages by Patrick, the well-intentioned but hapless leader of Hazel and Gus’ support group. At meetings the members sit “in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.” They are “literally” in Jesus’ heart, Patrick says. Hazel later invokes that description often. And yet, she and Gus talk about the meaning of life in secular terms: They don’t raise the possibility — even to dismiss it — that a sense of purpose might include God. Jesus, it turns out, was simply wallpaper. Of course, teenagers are growing up in a secular world, but The Fault in Our Stars punts on a paraphrase of the wartime question: Is it true that there are no atheists in the Intensive Care Unit?
This is not to suggest that Green should, in the words of the Protestant hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” It is rather to say that his book violates Chekhov’s dramatic principle: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Support groups meet in many places, including hospitals, and Hazel and Gus’ group could have gathered in a spot less freighted with symbolism than “in the middle of the cross” in a church. For all the virtues of his novel, Green is trying to have it both ways — to saturate his book with religious motifs without having to explore their implications for his characters.
Best line: “He looked like he was dressed for a colonial occupation of Panama, not a funeral.”
Worst line: Hazel’s “my aforementioned third best friend,” “wherein I put my hand on the couch,” that “eponymous album” and similar phrases.
Second opinion: Another review of The Fault in Our Stars calls it a “mawkish” and “exploitative” example of a genre that some call “sick list,” which deals with the plight of gravely ill childrem.
Reading Group Guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Fault in Our Stars appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 9, 2013, in the post that directly preceded this one.
Published: January 2012
Read an interview with John Green about The Fault in Our Stars on his website.
Learn about the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars.
Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.
© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.