I finished The Fault in Our Stars by John Green over the weekend. The book focuses on a teen-aged girl with terminal cancer named Hazel and the romantic relationship she develops with a boy she meets in a cancer support group, Augustus. I don’t want to review the book per se but simply record a few impressions I had while reading it.
The first half of the book was a bit slow for my taste but I stuck with it because Green’s dialogue and story-telling were quite realistic: the main characters – all struggling with varieties of debilitating cancer – were believable even if I didn’t have a vested interest in them in the beginning. My favorite character was a writer depicted in the novel, Peter Van Houten, a colorful gargantuan grouch who wrote a book the kids loved called An Imperial Affliction and whom they travel to meet in Amsterdam.
As for supporting characters, I’m not sure if it’s a marketing ploy to increase the book’s appeal to teenagers but Green makes most of the adults in the novel out to be pretty clueless nubs: grieving and emotionally fraught know-nothings. The kids are understandably full of questions about their respective situations, looking for answers about the meaning of existence, whether there’s a God, what the afterlife might like be if one exists, if human life, suffering and death bear any intrinsic value in the universal scheme – even their trip to see the writer Van Houten is their subconscious attempt to bring closure to these unanswered questions. Along the way they are disappointed at every step by grownups who also don’t know and can’t really explain what they believe, or why. Most of them aren’t even brave enough to try.
However, other readers might not see it so, and I confess that I’m prejudiced: although relativism is the flavor of our times I personally don’t find it heroic or laudable to be basically unprincipled and lack any answers to the Big Questions. I think some folks in Western culture mistake a waffling, unmade mind for openness, wisdom and maturity; but to me it signifies laziness and unwillingness to investigate or challenge one’s own worldview. A person who believes “nothing can be known for certain” has closed his mind to knowledge and even the impetus to explore. I think that’s a mistake, but it seems to be the conclusion at which all the adults in the book have arrived.
The latter third or so of the novel shows the devastating effects of the pain and loss of wasting disease as it ripples out from the afflicted ones to their surrounding family and friends. It’s a tearjerker, and I read the last hundred pages at one sitting because I couldn’t put it down.
The plot is a romantic story and an exploration of the process of dying and grief, but what underlies the circumstances and motivates the principle characters is a Quixotic quest to clarify philosophical perspectives which they find deeply unsatisfying (rightfully so, in my opinion), and which ultimately proves to be a fruitless endeavor.