I confess that I spent the last hundred or so pages of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS crying nearly nonstop. I'm hesitant to admit that, because it makes the novel sound sad, like a "cancer book." And as narrator Hazel would say, "cancer books suck."
I wouldn't want to give the wrong impression of the book --- Hazel surely wouldn't want me to --- so let me assure you that although the novel is, at times, almost desperately sad (rightly so, I would say, given its subject matter), it's also lovely and hopeful and extremely funny. The reason I was crying nearly nonstop, after all, is that I had to pause my tears every now and then to laugh aloud.
"John Green shatters expectations with this novel, turning assumptions about 'tragic' books --- perhaps even about the idea of tragedy itself --- on their heads."
Even if this is emphatically not a cancer book (or at least not one of those cancer books), the specter of cancer haunts each of these characters' lives. As one puts it, "What am I at war with? My cancer. And what is my cancer? My cancer is me. The tumors are made of me. They're made of me as surely as my brain and my heart are made of me. It is a civil war…with a predetermined winner."
Hazel, for one, sees herself in some ways as living on borrowed time, ever since the Miracle, when she barely survived a cancer crisis and continued to live with the help of drugs and her ever-present oxygen tank. Her friend Isaac, who has already lost one eye to cancer and is in danger of losing the other, is engulfed in fear and anger over everything he's already lost and all he still has to survive.
And then there's Augustus Waters, the boy Hazel starts to fall for in spite of herself, in spite of her heartfelt desire not to hurt anyone else the way she knows she'll destroy her parents when she dies. She keeps her distance from Augustus at first, or tries to, but Augustus --- with his endlessly questioning nature, his smart-aleck comments and fondness for metaphor, his muscular arms and amputated leg, his desire to make a mark on the world in as much time as he has allotted to him --- is able to find a way through Hazel's defenses. "Augustus Waters read to me while Mom, making lunch, listened in…. As he read, I fell in love with the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once."
Hazel and Augustus are nearly perfect together; like many John Green characters, they are nearly impossibly perceptive and witty, like the kinds of smart kids no one actually knew in high school but everyone wishes they did. In a typical cancer book, their insight and unvarnished way of looking at the world would be a noble side effect of cancer; in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, though, it's just part of who they are. Part of the novel's heartbreak is that readers will find themselves wishing for more time --- for Hazel and Augustus, with Hazel and Augustus --- just as the characters themselves do.
John Green shatters expectations with this novel, turning assumptions about "tragic" books --- perhaps even about the idea of tragedy itself --- on their heads. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is painfully sad, for sure, and it pulls no punches in its often gruesome depictions of late-stage cancer. At some points, readers may even wonder why, if pain and love are so intertwined, we should bother falling in love at all. But, in true John Green fashion, even that question is answered, right at the book's close, in a character’s own words that are tender and wise, hopeful and true, just like the novel itself.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 21, 2012