The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

This book wasn’t for me. I thought it might be — 10 million fans can’t be wrong — I had heard good things about it, the title stayed lodged in my brain, and I thought about buying the book several times over the course of this year. So I picked it up, not entirely on impulse, at Berlin’s main train station just before an overnight trip to points south and read it all at once, finishing somewhere between Prague and the Slovak border.

The Fault in Our Stars is a tale of dying teens in love. Sometimes books aimed at children or young adults will get to the emotional core of an idea or character or event in a way that books aimed at adults will not or cannot. As Madeleine L’Engle put it, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” A book about death and love and growing up that is aimed at young people can afford to be very direct, and that can pay off by going straight to the heart of the matter. But the flip side of that coin is self-involvement, mawkishness, self-indulgence. A story of dying teens falling in love is an invitation to self-involvement, and I think that’s what most put me off of The Fault in Our Stars, along with the author’s indulgence.

Hazel, the first-person narrator, is terminal and living on borrowed time from the unexpected success of a treatment a couple of years before the book opens. She needs supplementary oxygen to survive, and rolls a cart with a tank behind her everywhere she goes. Augustus seems to be in remission from bone cancer. They meet at Support Group, which she goes to at her parents’ request, as part of a regimen for keeping depression at bay. He goes because otherwise there wouldn’t be any book. That’s not quite fair; he goes to support his friend Isaac, who has cancer of the eyes, has had one removed already, and is due to have the other one out in the very near future.

The Fault in Our Stars is not a bad book; the dialogue is often zippy and nearly always convincing. The individual scenes are vivid and well put together. The part of the story in which Hazel and Augustus bond over her favorite book is very sweet, particularly the contrast with his favorites (a video game adaptation series) and how she comes to like them anyway, reveling in their superficiality. But the accuracy of the teenage dialogue reflects how very absorbed they are in themselves, and that diminished my interest in spending time with these characters.

The other thing is that, having Doomed his characters in the setup, Green indulges them in almost everything else. There’s a feint toward Hazel not falling in love with Augustus. She says she doesn’t want to be a grenade in other people’s lives, exploding and causing harm all around. She can’t help it in the case of her parents, but she can help it with people like Augustus, so she’s just not going to love him, she’s not, she’s going to stay away from him and save him from herself that way. My eyes rolled, and I wondered how many pages would go by before she got over herself and got together with him. About 20 pages, if I remember correctly.

The author of Hazel’s favorite book never wrote another one, and lives reclusively in Amsterdam. He doesn’t give interviews, doesn’t have an online presence, and doesn’t answer fan mail. So naturally, the author’s assistant answers Augustus when he writes. Not only that, the answer contains an invitation to come and see him if Hazel and Augustus should, improbably, find themselves in Holland. Is there a Make-A-Wish Foundation in the book? There is! And just like that, Hazel and Augustus are off to Amsterdam. Sure, some of Hazel’s doctors object, and sure, there are off-stage hints that Augustus’ parents don’t think it’s a good idea, but is anything going to prevent a week of fairytale teen romance in the Netherlands? Of course not.

Anyway, the author they went to meet turns out to be a jerk of near-Salinger caliber. Hazel and Augustus are bummed, but determined not to let him ruin their special time.

So they have their special time and return home, where Augustus reveals that his cancer has relapsed, and he dies, because you didn’t see that coming did you? The jerk author comes to Augustus’ funeral to try to apologize to Hazel (no, really), and she tells him off in the kind of righteous rant every teen (and to be honest, not just teens) dreams of delivering. He slinks off, never to be seen again.

The accumulating improbabilities and cliches, including One Good Boink in This Life, left me thinking that the book was less than the sum of its parts.

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