Initial Thoughts: “The Fault in our Stars”

I’ve been meaning to read this one for awhile. As for why, I’ll give you some background on the book: On goodreads.com (a good site), it is one of the highest rated book on goodreads, with an absurd 4.49 or something out of 5. John Green, the author, is an Edgar (mystery genre) award winner known for his superb prose. In several reader polls I’ve seen including, I believe, NPR, it’s consistently won the award for best teen/young adult novel of ALL TIME, and usually in a landslide. It’s about to be made into a movie. And, finally, it’s about cancer. Basically, the book is supposed to be a Book Thief level masterpiece of fiction, so naturally I have to read it.

Well, I started. I was amazed. I had to skip ahead, read other scenes to figure out if things stayed at that quality, and they did. And you know what?

This book is AWFUL.

Here’s the plot: Hazel has cancer. She meets Augustus, who has cancer. Augustus’s personality is perfect in every way, plus he’s hot, so naturally he falls in love with her almost literally at first sight. Wacky but very sad (because CANCER) hi-jinks ensue as a result!

The first problem is that Hazel is one of the most unlikeable protagonists I’ve ever read. What I gather is that we’re supposed to like her because she has cancer and is considerate to her parents. That’s great. It’s unfortunate that she acts like a massive piece of shit to the rest of the world, then.

Hazel is at a cancer kids support group meeting at a local Church. We’re introduced to the counselor in charge through the many, many times Hazel talks about how he lost his balls to testicular cancer, and now has a miserable life. This is a real hang up for her. He doesn’t JUST lead a miserable life, he’s also ball-less. She spends quite a lot of time contemplating this, because apparently being amused at people’s testicular cancer behind their back is ripe material for black comedy. Oh, wait, Hazel has cancer herself, so it’s okay for her to be an asshole.

Then Augustus was introduced. I wish I had the book in front of me so I could quote it (I don’t keep the book at home), but Hazel ACTUALLY SAYS that when Augustus stares at her it’s really great because he’s hot, but if an ugly guy stared at her it would be creepy. At first I was going to give her props for being honest, then I realized that all she did was ADMIT that she acted like a bitch towards people she wasn’t attracted to. So sorry Hazel, no props for you.

Augustus and Hazel talk like medieval philosophers, or possibly Shakespearean actors. When Augustus is asked what he fears most he answers “Oblivion”. I shit you not, oblivion. Hazel ups the ante by responding with a long, complex speech essentially about how we’re all going to die anyway so really why be afraid of it? Apparently, cancer not only kills you, but also turns teenagers into brilliant philosophers. Brilliant, really depressing philosophers.

After this little scene Hazel goes up to Augustus and asks him why he was staring, in an insanely obvious attempt to fish for compliments. Augustus says he thought she was hot. Hazels says she’s turned on. THIS IS THE MAGIC OF AUGUSTUS, PEOPLE.

Right from the start, I immediately knew Augustus was going to die. He had to. He was too perfect. Finny can’t live in “A Separate Peace”, Augustus can’t live in this book. And – SPOILER – guess what? I was, of course, right. This is very sad, because their love is pure and true and beautiful. And why? Who knows! Hazel finds Augustus hot and in general is just in awe of the fact that he likes her. Augustus really likes Hazel and is handsome and smart and funny.

So I was in awe at how much I hated Hazel and how annoyingly pretentious the dialogue was, so I skipped around to different scenes to see if things changed. Nope – it gets worse. Hazel and Augustus continually exchange “witty repartee”, which, thanks to the way they spoke more or less resembled the banter in Shakespearean comedies, but not as good. At one point, Augustus actually starts a soliloquy. As in, that was his term for it. It reads as ridiculous as you would think.

Hazel, meanwhile, is still a shit. When she meets other boys she always makes sure to mentally compare their hotness to Augustus’s, in order to ascertain that her boyfriend “wins” – another fun example of Hazel being a colossal dickhead to boys she doesn’t like. Her internal monologue consists mostly of her enthusing about how absolutely incredible and gorgeous Augustus is, and near the end it’s mostly her complaining because Augustus is dying. Which, hey, admittedly is a horrible thing to go through, but Hazel is so unlikeable and Augustus so unbelievable that the impact is weaker than it should be. Plus, the fact that I knew Augustus was going to die from literally reading about the plot on the book jacket also dulled the impact a bit. Her dialogue, like Augustus’s, often includes long, poetic monologues about the meaning of life, pretty much like the dialogue of all actual cancer patients. This, of course, is in between the faux-Shakespearean witty repartee, which as everybody knows is how teenagers of all walks of life regularly communicate to each other.

Basically, we’re supposed to excuse all of the ways Hazel acts like a shit because she has cancer. This is apparently supposed to give her some sort of immunity from criticism. And while I have not read it I will assume that the total perfectness of Augustus will drag her out of her depression and cause her to be less nasty by the end of the novel, which would be a lovely character arc if Augustus was in any way a realistic character.

The good points – he writes pretty prose. That’s pretty much all I have for you, but to be fair it’s a rare skill/talent, so some genuine props for that.

I’m going to finish the book. How can I not? It’s unfair of me to leave this as the last note when I couldn’t even make it through the first chapter. John Green deserves at least a little more respect than that. But, my initial recommendation: Don’t buy the hype. It’s terrible.

If you want a good young adult novel about cancer try “Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie”. The book is quite formulaic and is meant more for middle school readers than teenagers, but the dialogue is believable and Sonnenblick (the author) is actually really, really funny without making fun of people’s testicular cancer. The main character starts out as a jerk but his character arc, while helped along by others, is a result of his own self-reflection rather than the remarkable influence of the most perfectest person ever. The book has some really touching moments. You’ll often see it high up on “best ever young adult novel” lists as well. Highly, highly recommended.

One final note – Because Green is good at writing prose and Zusak is also good at writing prose this book is often compared to “The Book Thief”. I’ll tell you the major differences, then. “The Book Thief” has much better dialogue, multidimensional characters, takes on subject matter just as serious but using a much riskier narrative conceit, and, sorry Green fans, but less pretentious prose. Yes, that’s right, a book narrated by Death itself is less pretentious than “The Fault in Our Stars”. This is mostly because Death has his own narrative voice separate from the characters, and thus the characters all have their own speaking styles instead of just all being professional poets. So if you hear anybody compare the two, don’t be afraid – “The Book Thief” is the far better novel.

It’s such a shame, because I was truly prepared for this, like “The Book Thief”, to blow me away and become one of my favorite books.

Initial thoughts: Thumbs WAY down. More to come later.

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10 Responses to Initial Thoughts: “The Fault in our Stars”

  1. Ilíon says:

    I’ve never heard of it (or the author), and I’ll never look for it. But I loved your review.

    • Heh, thanks. It was fun to write.

      I really will try to finish, or at least make it through a more significant chunk of, the book, and I might go search out that mystery novel of his that won the Edgar – like I said, he writes very good prose, and my love of Sherlock Holmes should tell you that I am a pretty big mystery fan.

  2. Colleen says:

    Isn’t Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pies about someone who happens to know someone else with cancer? My sister’s middle school performed it as a play and I remember her complaining about how it was just another “inspired by a person with cancer” story, instead of actually telling the story/experience of the person with cancer. I had cancer and she grew up with me so I think she is pretty aware of real vs. bullshit portrayals of cancer. I haven’t read it yet, although it is on my list because I love to hate-read “cancer books”. But anyway, even if it is written well, I do think the trope of being inspired by a person with cancer (even if that causes self-reflection rather than a “manic pixie dream boyfriend” situation like with Gus in TFIOS*) is really problematic, because it’s still not telling the character with cancer’s story. When people with illnesses and disabilities are already marginalized in society, and with cancer held up as “inspiration porn”, I think it’s important for there to be books/other media that tell the “real” story through the eyes of the people who actually experience those situations, not the players on the sidelines who are inspired/affected by them (yes, family/friend voices are important too but there are not a lot of books out there that tell the story from the patient’s perspective, in a well-rounded/real way, so they need representation right now).

    *I did like TFIOS because I really enjoyed finally getting a “cancer book” that was irreverent in the same way I was/matched my dark humor (which, might make me a shit like Hazel lol). I don’t think it was perfect and largely agree with a lot of what you said… I don’t necessarily think Hazel is mean but she definitely feels a little too sorry for herself for a good part of the book, the pretentious dialogue (a problem with all of John Green’s books), and Guis is a total manic pixie dream girl. I knew it was going to be a bit of a fantasy love story/rom-com, yet within that I did find a lot of the cancer experiences/humor to be truer to my life than most other cancer books I have read. Again, could make me a shit! 😉

    • Hey Colleen, thanks for the long comment! I was waiting for a fan to post, and yours could have been meaner…

      Anyway, “Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie” was written SPECIFICALLY about the BROTHER of the cancer patient – that is absolutely true and stated up front. I think connecting it to “marginalizing sick people” is rather silly, especially after Sonnenblick wrote a sequel from the brother’s point of view.

      And anyway, if you read the book Stephen was absolutely NOT “inspired” by his brother;s attitude. Instead he takes it upon himself to help his brother get through an extraordinarily difficult challenge, and he comes to accept that this is his life now and he has to make the best of it. There isn’t a hint of “My brother’s cancer has inspired me to live life to the fullest!”. It’s more like “My brother’s cancer has forced me to make the best of a shitty reality”.

      If by “inspired by a person with cancer” story you mean that “It’s not all sadness all the time” well then, yeah. At the time he wrote it anyway that sort of book, from the sibling of the patient’s point of view, was not at all common, which is why he wrote it.

      As for Hazel, well, she just struck me as a mean-spirited person. There’s dark humor, then there’s somebody mocking a person who had testicular cancer and now finds meaning by trying to help the lives of other cancer patients. That’s just being a jackass.

      Glad you enjoyed the book, though! Far be it from me to rob you of that.

      • Colleen says:

        Haha well I was an English major, so I totally get that people will get different things out of the same books! I don’t care if someone else hates it but the amount of vitriol about the book lately has made me think about it in a different way, which is good. My sister’s feelings could have to do with the adaptation her school used. I’m glad you didn’t think it was stereotypical, and that makes me more interested in reading it. Like, I doubt the author’s intent in writing about a cancer sibling’s situation was to ignore the character with cancer; that is something the whole family goes through and I think siblings need something to relate to as well. I’m not trying to say that author was doing that specifically on purpose, maybe he was really trying to address a different missing population in books; my sister just saw it as playing into the general inspiration/angel child trend and book-about-cancer-that’s-not-really-about-the-cancer-patient trend. I can’t really judge not having read it, I’m just judging a general trend/trope. I just got really tired as a kid of not being able to find a book with a character who had similar experiences to me, where the book was either a) not really about that character or b) made the character out to be some type of superhuman. I just wanted to read a book about a kid with cancer/other serious illness where that character was the main character and was NORMAL/had a life/interests outside of cancer. TFIOS came pretty close to that for me, with the caveats above. I thought Because I Die was pretty decent too (and a lot less sentimental than TFIOS). But I still don’t really see this type of book out there, most of the time the character with cancer is a side character and I think that is a huge problem. And yeah I’d rather see that book than a well-written one from the family/close friend’s situation because I think the actual patient needs to be represented.

        “If by “inspired by a person with cancer” story you mean that “It’s not all sadness all the time” well then, yeah.” LOL… no, I meant the type of Hallmarkified/romanticized story like A Walk to Remember (the book is about 10X worse than the movie in this regard, which is saying something). Like I said these are normal kids with lives outside their diseases and there is no reason not to – every reason to – include humor or happy moments because those happen too, even when you are dealing with something that serious. I dislike cancer movies/books that seem too overly pessimistic too because I find that harder to relate to, I’m just more of a happy person, haha.

      • Then perhaps you should try another Sonneblick book (which I mentioned), “After Ever After”, which IS from the point of view of the cancer patient from the first book.

        Anyway, I know that the market he was writing for was untapped because I happen to know the story behind the writing of the novel. Sonnenblick was a teacher who had a student with a little brother who had cancer. He suggested she read a book about it to help deal with the issues, but he could find none from the point of view of the sibling. So he created one.

        The character of Jeffrey, the cancer patient, isn’t particularly good or bad. He’s portrayed as a normal little kid. Cute, but nothing ridiculous. Stephen, for the first half or so of the novel, is always complaining about him, actually. The second half is when he comes around to finally supporting him, but it has nothing to do with anything Jeffrey actually said or did, but rather with Stephen finally coming to accept his situation.

      • Colleen says:

        Haha oh and yeah, I guess she was pretty mean to/about the support group leader. I am embarrassed to say that was one of my favorite parts because as a teen I also would have hated if my parents made me go to a support group, and spend the whole time making fun of how lame it/the leader was in my head instead of participating. But um, not really nice either, and I don’t think I’d go to the extent of making fun of someone for having had cancer.

      • As for the support group, I get what Green was going for, and everybody does what Hazel did to some extent. I just thought her preoccupation with the fact that he lost his genitals to testicular cancer and how much of a loser this made him was disturbing, especially since this attitude is never actually condemned. In fact, she gets rewarded for this behavior when she finds Augustus, who basically thinks the same way she did.

  3. Sounds like you need some therapy. Impish Idea was sporking the book a bit.

    Who would you rank as best prose author? I admit I still have a lot of samples to go through, but there’s just something about his style that always causes me to push George MacDonald to the top. It’s just… a delight to read him.

    • I’ve been going through my old posts, and spotted this.

      Best prose author? Probably Markus Zusak. The man is an absolute master at metaphor.

      Wright is excellent as well, especially in his Night Land stories.

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