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.
In a recent video blog, John Green said that he wanted The Fault in Our Stars to make readers “feel all of the things.” That is, it cannot be easily categorized as a sad book because it has moments of humor and romance and irreverence. But ultimately, it’s a novel that deals with Big Questions, and I can’t talk about it without getting all serious on you.
The Fault in Our Stars is about a pair of teenagers who meet at a support group for kids with cancer. That’s the one-sentence synopsis that John Green has been using, and it’s perfectly accurate and free of spoilers. But it should be mentioned that this book has little in common with a certain genre of weepie novels about cancer. I mean, I never read Lurlene McDaniel in middle school, but I can only assume her books are of the sort that John is rebelling against. (Anyone who publishes a book titled Don’t Die, My Love should be regarded with suspicion.) Hazel and Augustus aren’t symbols or martyrs; they’re normal kids who have been dealt a bad genetic hand.
What gives John Green the authority to write about young people with cancer? Well, he worked as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital in his younger days and has been trying to use the experience in a novel ever since. Hazel, the novel’s narrator, is concerned with many of life’s Big Questions. Seems perfectly natural when you’ve been terminally ill since the age of thirteen. What I love is how John intertwines Hazel’s soul-searching with an examination of the relationship between reader and text.
Okay, that sounds incredibly heady, but the topic is approached in a manageable way. Like, you don’t have to be a nerdy English major to enjoy this book — I promise! The theme presents itself this way: Hazel is obsessed with a book called An Imperial Affliction, which is also about a girl with cancer. Green invites the reader to think about how we use made-up stories to make meaning in our own lives. As a creative-type person and a lover of media, I can strongly relate to using books and movies and music as a lens for figuring out the world. Who hasn’t latched on to a certain song or album because it precisely fits how they’re feeling at that time?
John Green isn’t arguing that it’s wise to take any piece of art as the be-all, end-all in our search for meaning. But he does portray it as innately human to look for a point of connection with something outside of yourself. This is his greatest novel to date. If these are questions that interest you, or even if they don’t, I would recommend it without reservation. It might make you cry, but it will do much more than that. You may even FEEL ALL OF THE THINGS, which is satisfying in itself, I think.