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The Fault In Our Stars

January 24, 2012

Walker asked me to pre-order John Green’s YA novel The Fault In Our Stars this fall so he’d get a signed copy, and then a friend walked into the Kenyon bookstore on the day it came out and got a copy that was signed AND had a drawing by John’s brother Hank.

Walker read the novel in a couple of hours on the afternoon he returned home from a chess tournament in Philadelphia, and then handed it to me. I read it way too late into the night and while standing in line for lunch the next day, and finally had to hand it off to Eleanor so I could get any work done. She read it that afternoon, and I retrieved it and finished it that night. After that, I went to the Kenyon bookstore and bought a copy for my niece (hey Claire, do you want it now, or should I wait for your birthday to come around?) They still had one with a drawing, so I brought it home and offered it to Walker, saying that his cousin might like the first signed copy.

Anyway, I didn’t know anything about the book except that it was by John Green and we’ve liked everything else he’s written. I was intrigued by the Shakespearean quotation in the title (from Julius Caesar: “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves”) and interested to see that Green’s narrator argues against it, asserting that it’s “easy enough to say when you’re a Roman nobleman…but there is no shortage of faults to be found amid our stars.” In other words, some people are dealt a losing hand, and their life consists of trying to have some fun and possibly make it mean something before it plays out.

The novel is populated by kids with cancer, but as has already been said by Avid Reader and at Things Mean a Lot, it’s not a depressing book. They talk about the “perks” they get merely because they’re kids with a fatal illness. The main character, Hazel, has a friend with whom she “communicated almost exclusively through sighs. Each time someone discussed anticancer diets or snorting ground-up shark fin or whatever, he’d glance over at me and sigh ever so slightly. I’d shake my head microscopically and exhale in response.”

Also, of course, the characters are readers. And what reader is not going to identify with observations like this one:
“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books…which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.”

There are a lot of parts where you laugh and cry at the same time. One of them, for me, was here:

The sky was gray and low and full of rain but not yet raining. I hung up when I got Augustus’ voice mail and then put the phone down in the dirt beside me and kept looking at the swing set, thinking that I would give up all the sick days I had left for a few healthy ones. I tried to tell myself that it could be worse, that the world was not a wish-granting factory, that I was living with cancer not dying of it, that I mustn’t let it kill me before it kills me, and then I just started muttering stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid over and over again until the sound unhinged from its meaning. I was still saying it when he called back.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hazel Grace,” he said.
“Hi,” I said again.
“Are you crying, Hazel Grace?”
“Kind of?”
“Why” he asked.
“’Cause I’m just…I just don’t want my particular life, and also the sky is depressing me, and there is this old swing set out here that my dad made for me when I was a kid.”
“I must see this old swing set of tears immediately,” he said.

Speaking of depressing places, Hazel invents a word that perfectly describes some wings of medical facilities:
“It didn’t have any of the cloyingly bright primary color-painted walls or the framed paintings of dogs driving cars that one found at Children’s, but the absolute sterility of the place made me nostalgic for the happy-kid bullshit at Children’s. Memorial was so functional. It was a storage facility. A prematorium.”
Yes. With the high-pitched hushed voices and overheated hallways that smell, in the words of my seven-year-old daughter, “like Tylenol.”

The boy that Hazel loves, Augustus, also has an incisive way of describing things, particularly what it’s like to be just released from the hospital:
“These were days of pajamas and beard scruff, of mumblings and requests and him endlessly thanking everyone for all they were doing on his behalf. One afternoon, he pointed vaguely toward a laundry basket in a corner of the room and asked me, “What’s that?”
“That laundry basket?”
“No, next to it.”
“I don’t see anything next to it.”
“It’s my last shred of dignity. It’s very small.”

I have a friend who saw me once as I was losing my grip on a last shred of dignity. He went right back out and bought me another kind of yogurt (thanks, Brian).

As Augustus says on first meeting Hazel, they are more than their illnesses… although the gallows humor never stops:
“’Seeing me naked actually took Hazel Grace’s breath away,’ he said, nodding toward the oxygen tank.”

I can’t decide if I should send a copy of this book to my mother. I think she’d like a lot of the incisive parts, and that it’s a sad story without being depressing, but I’m not sure how much more she should be dwelling on cancer during the dark part of this winter. What do you think?

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2012 7:16 am

    He struck a perfect balance with the humour, I think. The scene with the oxygen tank joke was amazing and genuinely funny – and then the bit right after where Augustus’ father tells Hazel how grateful he is for her made me tear up.

    It’s a hard decision whether or not to send it. There’s something comforting about literature that acknowledges even the most difficult experiences, but then again sometimes it all gets to be too much. Not very helpful, I know.

    • January 25, 2012 10:37 am

      Yes, the humor is pitch-perfect!
      You’ve put it better than I could–it’s hard to know if it’s better to have the experience acknowledged, or if that would be too much.

  2. January 24, 2012 9:20 am

    Spotted four copies of this in the hands of teens at church on Sunday –

    • January 25, 2012 10:38 am

      Attesting to its mesmerizing power. It’s been a while since I had to give a book to someone else to stop myself reading it during the day when I needed to be doing other things.

  3. January 24, 2012 10:24 am

    Oh, this sounds right up my alley. I gobbled up every Lurlene McDaniel when I was a kid. 🙂

    • January 25, 2012 10:40 am

      I had never heard of her, but when I looked her up–wow! she’s really made a career of writing about dying kids. Should I ask what put you onto this kind of YA fiction?

  4. January 24, 2012 10:30 am

    I, too, hesitated over whether to share it with someone who is living with cancer (but not dying of it). I love Green’s humor–it’s so incisive, so breathtakingly apt at times, that it really makes me both laugh out loud and cry in the same moment.

    • January 25, 2012 10:42 am

      Someone who is living with cancer would find the humor and perspective of Hazel’s story a relief, I think. I loved the part about the last shred of dignity because I’ve been there, and I think there must be a lot more of those moments for someone who has gone through the kind of treatments and family emotions described in the novel.

  5. January 24, 2012 12:07 pm

    I am so glad that you liked it too! I love how you and your kids pass books around and get to share that reading experience, it’s fantastic. I think it’s hard to say about sending it to your mom. My sister and I went through the same loss (my mom) and yet I don’t think she’d like this book. We process things so differently and she doesn’t like to dwell on anything having to do with death/cancer, etc. because it’s too much of a reminder.

    • January 25, 2012 10:45 am

      Even with your own family, it’s sometimes hard to know if they would experience any kind of relief from the endless going-over of the details of their own experience or whether it would be, as you say, a reminder. I sent my brother the movie Elizabethtown after our father died, and I’m still cringing, waiting to see how he reacted…or if he ever makes the time to watch it.

  6. freshhell permalink
    January 24, 2012 2:27 pm

    I don’t know. Have you asked your kids? I usually shy away from depressing subjects even when the writing’s really good. I have to be in the right mood for it.

    • January 25, 2012 10:46 am

      I have not asked them, because the book is addressed to their age group, and it concerns me that my mother doesn’t read a lot of YA fiction. She won’t react as enthusiastically as they did, because it’s not written to her as much.

  7. January 24, 2012 4:46 pm

    The book got a lot of attention in your household. As for your mom, I think I can’t really answer that but I suspect you know deep down.

    • January 25, 2012 10:48 am

      I’m leaning towards sending it to her for Valentine’s Day, because that’s going to be a bad day, and maybe another love story would help. There’s a line about the death of one character when another character thinks that the only person she could talk to about it is…him. That line might make her feel less alone on a day she’s going to feel very much alone.

  8. January 24, 2012 6:52 pm

    Apart from the “weird evangelical zeal” part I don’t think I have either of those reactions to any book ever. I want people to read books I’ve liked, but only if I think they will like them too (cause people have different tastes), and I NEVER feel like I want to keep my devotion to any book private. And indeed I have never understood that instinct! If you don’t tell anyone about it then who will you talk about it with?

    • January 25, 2012 10:49 am

      Well, I tell people I “like” The Lord of the Rings. But I rarely tell anyone how much, because what if they don’t like it that much, too, and then they think I’m silly?

      • Karen D permalink
        January 25, 2012 11:40 am

        Jeanne–

        Your children are Eleanor (elanor) and Walker (Strider). I think it’s pretty obvious how much you “like” the Lord of the Rings.

        • January 25, 2012 2:14 pm

          True.

          • Karen permalink
            January 28, 2012 4:42 pm

            Well, I overstated things. There’s actually no good reason for someone to jump to the conclusion that “Eleanor” and “Walker” actually refer back to Middle-Earth. It’s not as if you call your son Sam after having named him Samwise.

            • January 29, 2012 8:12 am

              I do not think you overstated things at all. We like to be subtle. Also Eleanor of Aquitaine and Walker Percy are in the mix.

  9. January 24, 2012 11:09 pm

    I’ve only just heard of this book this week, so yours is the first review of it I’ve read. I love the quotes you shared, especially the one about reading.

    • January 25, 2012 10:51 am

      If you haven’t read Avid Reader’s review and the one at Things Mean a Lot, you really should–they’re more complete than mine. When Walker had just finished the book and was bursting to talk about it, but no one else had finished it, I showed him Nymeth’s review and he read it and said “yeah, that’s it.”

  10. January 25, 2012 5:55 am

    While the book itself isn’t something I would pick up (partly because two close family members are in fact living with cancer, and partly because this does seem depressing just by the topics involved), your review made for a very good read. You know the issues we’ve been facing and while not fatal or even life threatening, there does come a time when when I do begin to think that “some people are dealt a losing hand” and perhaps this is just how my life will be.

    • January 25, 2012 10:54 am

      One of the things this novel shows you is how much fun you can have playing out a losing hand. If “you can’t take it with you” then what does a winning hand ultimately mean? The same thing. The pleasure’s in the playing.

  11. January 26, 2012 8:10 am

    If I’m not too late to weigh in, I would come down on the side of waiting a few more months to give it to your mom. Just read it after losing someone to cancer and I think that made it harder to read – I found myself having to close up the book and regain my emotional equilibrium (which is already shaky.) (On the other hand, you are having the same experience, and you managed it well – so maybe she is more like you than she is like me. Being your mother, and all.)

    Loved the book. I loved how the characters fell in love with WORDS. You know what I mean? So many novels make their characters fall in love in ways that make no sense – like, they describe their beauty or their charm or whatever, but you never get to see it or hear it – you just have to take the narrator’s word for it. I fell in love with both Augustus and Hazel myself, so it was easy to see why they fell for each other.

    • January 26, 2012 9:16 am

      It’s never too late to weigh in. And I’m still wavering, especially because what most concerns me about whether my mother would feel less alone by reading this story is that she’s older than most of the commenters here.
      And yes, it was a good word-based love story. That’s why it was strange, the couple of times their looks were described.
      I’m sorry about your very recent loss. The youtube video I saw of him singing and playing the guitar was so great.

  12. February 11, 2013 10:01 pm

    I just learned from a friend that this book takes place, in part, at my high school. Now I must read it!

    • February 12, 2013 7:52 am

      Yes, John Green still lives in Indianapolis.

      • February 12, 2013 8:52 pm

        I’m about halfway through and am enjoying the scenery. My high school self would have read this over and over, I think. All of the scenery are very, very familiar. And I find the date venues hilarious, because they were all my places — the garden behind the art museum, Holliday Park, etc. — to the point that I started to wonder if I knew John Green. That aside, I’m definitely enjoying the book.

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