Monday, February 10, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars Review

Oh, John Green. Why are you one of the greatest voices of our generation and why do you make me so so sad? Let me back up. Several years ago, some of my female students raved about John Green. I'd never heard of him, but I like to be aware of what my students are reading so when the 8th grade English teacher chose Paper Towns to read in the spring, I took a copy and devoured it. John Green was a bit of a cultish author at the time. He was known but not voraciously read except by a select group of students, typically girls with fangirl tenancies. However, my 8th graders devoured the novel. I will never forget taking the bus on a school trip that spring and looking back to check on the kids and just seeing most of them curled up reading the novel. That image has stayed in my mind and definitely pushed me to keep exploring Green's writing.

I can't remember if I read An Abundance of Katherines or Looking for Alaska next, although I had a feeling that I waited on Alaska because my kids warned me that it was so sad, which it was, although in the end, I think I ended up liking it better than Katherines. When The Fault in Our Stars came out in 2012, I had read about the new Green book, but frankly I wasn't very interested. My mom was in the process of being diagnosed with Acute Myelodysplasia and would need a stem cell transplant. We had no idea how that was going to go so I was not exactly in the right frame of mind to read a book about teenagers with cancer. Of course, cancer has touched most of our lives in one way or another. Many of us had older family members who faced cancer, which of course is difficult and sad, but it's a whole different ball game when the sick person is a kid.

Now, of course, the film of the book is coming out this summer. So many people told me that I had to read this book. And then I saw the trailer. And I cried. Literally over a movie trailer. After seeing it, I opened the book on my kindle (I've had it since last year), read the first line and wanted to start the book immediately. Of course I had to finish The Hollow City first, but that made me push through it to jump into Stars (I may have rushed through the end of Hollow a little too much, but it was worth it).

The Fault in Our Stars is John Green's first novel with a female narrator. Hazel Grace Lancaster is a 16 year old with thyroid cancer who also faces issues with tumors spreading in different parts of her body and fluid accumulation around her lungs (my mom faced this a few times and trust me, it's very scary). Hazel needs oxygen all the time. She doesn't have much of a life outside of her parents. She has been out of school for three years and having already received her GED takes college classes a few times a week. Her parents want her to have as normal a life as she can and push her to attend a cancer support group so she can meet kids facing the same issues she is. During one of these sessions, she meets Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor, former basketball star and amputee (his leg was removed during his fight with bone cancer). Augustus is immediately drawn to Hazel. She returns the attraction, but is a little more hesitant. However, they continue to bond, especially after Hazel shares her favorite book with him. An Imperial Affliction is Hazel's obsession: a book about a girl that has cancer which ends...well without an ending, really. For ages Hazel has written to the author, a recluse who never wrote anything else and who lives in Amsterdam, desperate to learn what happened to the characters. He has never written back, but Augustus persists and tracks down Peter van Houten through his agent. Thus begins a lively correspondence between the author, Augustus and Hazel. van Houten refuses to answer Hazel's questions about how the characters ended up over email or the phone but he invites them both to Amsterdam for an in person sit down.

Hazel's medical conditions make travel difficult, but even after a week in the hospital due to fluid accumulation around her lungs, her doctor approves the visit. Augustus surprises her by using his wish (from a company like Make a Wish) that he has held onto since his amputation to get them a trip to Amsterdam. At the same time, Hazel starts to pull away from Augustus. She learns that he has already lost one girlfriend to cancer and doesn't want to put him through such a loss again so while she is fine with being friends, she is hesitant to move forward to a more romantic relationship. Regardless, along with Hazel's mother, they fly off to Amsterdam, thrilled to have the chance to meet van Houten.

As much as I would love to go on and on about the Amsterdam trip, I hate to spoil things here... which is a bit ridiculous since I'm going to write about the ending in a little bit, but there's something magical about reading about their trip that I wouldn't want to ruin. Let's just say the trip is life changing for both Hazel and Augustus. Van Houten isn't quite what they were expecting and it seems clear that Hazel will never get the answers that she so desperately wants. She is aware that the book ended abruptly because the main character, Anna, probably died or got too sick to keep narrating, but what Hazel is really concerned about is what happens to Anna's mother. Did she marry a man she was dating? Did she have other children? What happened to Anna's friends and her hamster? It becomes clearer that Hazel is very aware of her own shortened lift span and fears what will happen to her own parents and her friends when she is gone, especially her mother, who has devoted years to her care. While dealing with van Houten is emotional and also a moment that fires Hazel up, the real magic of the trip lies in the further development of Augustus and Hazel's romantic relationship. Who knew Amsterdam was such a romantic place? Or that the Anne Frank museum could be such a lovely setting for a blossoming relationship.

Of course, the trip to Amsterdam changes everything between Augustus and Hazel in a few different ways. It would have been unrealistic for both teens to miraculously be cured and go on to live a happy life together. The Fault in Our Stars follows classic novel plotting: Amsterdam is the high point and everything goes downhill from there.

Time to discuss the end... please do yourself a favor and go read this book. Then come back and join me in talking about the ending. It is such a beautifully written, poignant, funny, smart and devastating novel that deserves to be read by anyone. So please, go read it and then come back here.

Needless to say, SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW...

Like I said, it would have been unrealistic for the story to have a happy ending. John Green wouldn't cop out like that. He wouldn't give into the commercial desire for a book that ends perfectly happily. And trust me, that's a good thing. I vacillated for a while about who I thought might die. But really, Hazel is the protagonist of the novel and I doubted that it would be her unless there was a shift in narrative voices. It worked in (SPOILER) Allegiant, but that book had multiple perspectives so killing off one of those voices was okay. Plus, Augustus was technically healed. He had been cancer free so having him get sick and die was a not entirely surprising twist. He confesses at the end of the Amsterdam trip that he got a PET scan (an imaging test that looks for traces of disease in the body) and that he "lit up like a Christmas tree." And from then moment on, the book is obviously going to be devastating. And it is. Green doesn't hold back in describing Augustus' decline and how Hazel copes with his dying. Cancer is a messy, devastating disease. Having an front seat to my mom's treatment and recovery really gave me a personal perspective that made this difficult to read. Around 85% into the book, I started crying and could not stop. I must have read the first page of one chapter around that point over and over. Fortunately, even after the tragedy, the story still ends in a somewhat hopeful place. Sort of. Hazel's prognosis isn't good and the fact that the book ends on an abrupt note echoes van Houten's An Imperial Affliction. Hazel probably will get much sicker or eventually die (she wouldn't even be a good candidate for a lung transplant - I kind of kept hoping Augustus or Isaac - who lives - would leave her their lungs and insist she use them to replace her own lungs. I know, wishful thinking, right?) but unlike Anna's mother, Hazel is left feeling more secure in what will happen to her parents after she dies. So in the end, she knows life will go on after she dies. And really, what more can you ask for?

Please read this book. I hope you did before you read this last paragraph, but seriously, it's a lovely, wonderful book and I know you'll love it.

John Green's Website

NY Times Review

The Atlantic Review

NPR Review

Movie Trailer

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble

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