Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Books - The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars, published in 2012, written by American author and vlogger John Green, has taken the world by storm in the last two years. It has become a huge fandom, as well as achieving critical success, and everyone seems to be talking both the novel and the film, which came out in the UK last month. This of course must be at least partly due to John Green’s internet success as half of youtube’s The Vlog Brothers, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t there that I first heard the novel mentioned. But the novel’s success can’t entirely be down to this, because it also happens to be a very good book.

I’m not entirely sure what I have to say about The Fault in Our Stars that hasn’t been said before. But I may as well give it a try.

The novel tells the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen year old suffering from thyroid and lung cancer. At a support group for other young people with cancer, she meets Augustus Water, a cancer survivor, and the novel primarily follows their relationship.

It is both a novel about cancer and not a novel about cancer. I think the narrator Hazel’s description of her favourite novel, An Imperial Affliction, is apt here: it deals with cancer, but ‘it’s not a cancer book’. The Fault in Our Stars is not about the main characters being strong in the face of adversity, although of course at times they are both. What I like about the novel is that it’s more about the people than the illnesses they have. It is, to me, not about dying from illness but about living with it, about what’s left in life when its longevity is threatened.

There were a few minor points of style that bothered me. I have a slight obsession with dialogue, and a great prejudice against all authors who are afraid of the word said (ahem, Stephanie Meyer). Green does not, for the most part, fall into this category, but there are a few times when he informs us that Hazel or Augustus ‘explained’ this or that piece of dialogue, when we already know from their words that it is an explanation. But this is, I know, a personal and unusual bugbear. It also half-bewildered me that the novel’s very first sentence refers to ‘the winter of my seventeenth year and yet Hazel goes on to say she is sixteen. It did eventually occur to me that when you’re sixteen you are in your seventeenth year, but it is nonetheless a confusing choice of words, especially for the novel’s very first sentence. It also irritated me every time a teenager said ‘you are’ or ‘I am’ when surely most people nowadays say ‘you’re’ and ‘I’m’.

However, these criticisms have one thing in common: they are all tiny. And ultimately none of them really matter. This is a stylistically strong and well-written novel, but its true force is emotional.

Of course, there are moments of incredibly beautiful or clever writing. Most of my favourites are a little too spoilery for a review, but here are two examples of what I mean:

Depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.)

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.

What I like about Green’s narrative style is that it is poetic, yet still reads like the honest and ordinary thoughts of a human being.

The characters are all three-dimensional and well created, especially Hazel. I also thought her parents were brilliant, and I like that at times the novel seems as much about them as about Hazel and Augustus. I found one of the most emotive moments in the book to be that when you realise Hazel primarily wants to find out what happens to the mother of Anna, the protagonist of An Imperial Affliction, so as to try and imagine what it might be like for her parents if she were to die. I was impressed that Green managed to get across a sense of the parents’ characters without ever describing them much, because of course they’re familiar to Hazel in a way that, say, Augustus is not, and so it would be unnatural to describe them.

As for Augustus himself, I remain unconvinced that anyone in reality would employ his cigarette metaphor. Beyond that, I like him. He is a thoroughly enjoyable character to read about. From what we learn about Hazel and what is related about him, we can see how they would realistically get on. The dialogue between him and Hazel is consistently funny.

I also think Peter Van Houten is brilliant, and not only because I always love novels about books or about people who write books. He is a clever character, and his character development is skilfully and poignantly done – as, perhaps, are most things in this novel

What most impresses me about The Fault in Our Stars is that it is the sort of book that makes you want to live. By that I don’t mean that it’s the sort of book that makes you want to not die, because that is far easier to write. I mean: it’s the sort of book that makes you want to live, to feel, to make friends and have relationships, to speak to people, to care about others, to witness humanity, to just live. I love that it’s a novel that somehow manages to communicate that life is rubbish, unfair and awful, but simultaneously get across that it really isn’t, because it’s also brilliant. This seems paradoxical, and probably is, but perhaps that is precisely the point. Life is a mixture. To me, the novel is an honest account of what it must be like living daily in such circumstances, constantly battling illness. The book is poignant, and it is sad, but it is never depressing. The narrative is neither romanticised nor sugar-coated, but it is also beautifully optimistic about life.

Greatest strength: Its emotional depth and balance between realism and optimism.

Greatest weakness: A few writing moments that I’m stylistically uncertain of – but as I already said, these are hardly “weaknesses” at all,

Let’s finish on a quote: My thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations

Next week: Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy

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