a review by Nalini Haynes
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a YA (young adult) novel embroiled in a literary storm instigated by that bastion of ‘intelligent’ reporting, the Daily Mail. I wrote a heated in-principle response then embarked on a journey to become more fully informed. This review is both a report on the novel itself and an addition to my linked blog.
Hazel, a 16 year old teenage girl living in the US, is dying of cancer. Hazel’s loving parents care for her, selfishly trying to have time with her before her death, hovering protectively and trying to help her live her life as fully as possible before she dies. The Fault in Our Stars is a journey with a definite destination; There is never any doubt about Hazel’s prognosis. Hazel wishes to tread lightly on this earth, doing as little damage as possible so that there has been as little waste as possible leading to her inevitable demise.
Angus Waters, a teenage boy, had a different form of cancer; Angus was cleared of cancer after the loss of his leg and his love of basketball. Angus has rebounded, living life on his terms, only intersecting Hazel’s life because he attended a cancer support group with a mutual friend, Isaac.
Hazel obsesses about a book with no end: it finishes half-way through a sentence because the protagonist is obviously too ill to write any more then she dies. Hazel loves this book because it speaks to her so well, yet she’s devastated because she wants a life for the side characters after the death of the protagonist.
Throughout the Fault in Our Stars I worried needlessly that Hazel’s favourite novel foreshadowed a similar ending for Green’s book. The incompletedness of Hazel’s novel and her desperate search for answers serves as an analogy and foil for Hazel’s own life. Hazel wants a future for those she loves; she worries about her mother who hovers, who may have no life after Hazel is gone because Hazel has been the centre of her life. She worries that her parents will get divorced because it is so rare for marriages to survive the death of a child.
My son and I discussed this novel in the context of the Daily Mail article. My son compared Fault in Our Stars to the Kite Runner, a cross-cultural novel about immigrants to the US. I found events in Kite Runner to be far more horrific and yet less emotionally engaging. The action in Kite Runner felt less real because I could not sympathise with the central character. The central character hid and watched boys rape his friend, he failed to acknowledge the rape then subsequently distanced himself from his friend. From that point, a gulf opened up between myself and this character that was difficult to bridge. My mounting horror and loathing was directed at the storyteller, making it difficult to engage fully with the story. In contrast Hazel is fully sympathetic; at times she has tantrums directed unreasonably at her parents but even then, she’s a teenager, a teenager who has so little time left (why shouldn’t she spend her time as she pleases, at least to a point), and a person coming to terms with her own mortality.
Hazel’s issues are, to some extent, universal issues: we are all going to die and it will always be too soon. We need to come to terms with this. The Fault in Our Stars takes this one step further in that Hazel, Angus and Isaac are teens with cancer. This happens. Teenagers get cancer, they die young. This is why we have organisations like CanTeen. While I was reading this novel, instead of agreeing with the Daily Mail article, I found myself wishing I’d had this novel growing up, that my uncle Alec had this novel while he was dying. Alec, like Hazel, knew he was dying.
When Alec was seriously ill in hospital he used to tell me to pass him his medical charts. He was transferred out of the children’s ward into a ward with three men who were all dying of the same condition. One day I went to visit Alec and one of the men was dead in his bed; Alec made me go and look closely at the man. Years later I realised that Alec knew he was dying and he, like Hazel, cared about those around him. Alec was trying to help me, a seven year old, come to terms with death to help me when he died. I wish Alec could have had a book like the Fault in Our Stars so that he could have identified with the characters, felt less alone as such a young man dying, and perhaps been helped through his issues himself. My mother, Alec’s oldest sister, did not know Alec was going to die. It must have been difficult, isolating, to know that his medical condition was being kept secret from his brothers and sisters, that medical staff and his parents were trying to keep his medical condition secret from him (there was a fuss when a nurse discovered Alec reading his medical charts). Alec was my Hazel; he died aged 20 in 1975.
I was the child left behind. Honest discussion or at the very least reading a book like the Fault in Our Stars as I grew up would have helped me come to terms with Alec’s death, to grieve properly in spite of not being allowed to cry or acknowledge Alec’s death in any way.
I have been the parent who hovers, like Hazel’s mum. Although my son is all grown up and is likely to live a long and fruitful life as long as he takes care, he’s had something like 25 operations. I’ve lived in fear of losing my son, I’ve dropped everything to look after him every time he’s been ill, I’ve lived in hospitals (literally) while he’s been a patient. I’ve looked at the irregular pattern on the floor of the Zero-to-Five children’s ward as I’ve walked along the corridor, thinking ‘I know this floor off by heart’. I’ve looked out of the window of this ward and realised that I was down a floor or two from that last ward to which Alec was transferred. I love the Fault in Our Stars for capturing this state of existence, the struggle, the emotion, the isolation and loss of friends so well.
I am grateful to John Green for capturing the emotion – the struggle – of this reality not only to speak to me eloquently, convincingly, that I am not alone but to share my experience and Alec’s experience with others in the form of this novel. I decry any allegation that the Fault in Our Stars is ‘sick lit’ as the Daily Mail alleges; instead I confirm it as ‘fit lit’, literature that can help and heal, literature that can build bridges between people by sharing experience that otherwise may be too personal, too fraught with emotion, to share.
Hazel’s and Angus’ stars are at fault. Their time together enriches them both, indeed their time together enriches us all, revealing much of whom they are and enabling them to grow, to appreciate their time together. The journey and the ending in this novel is satisfying although it’s equally heart-wrenching. At the close of the Fault in Our Stars I was far from inconsolable. I wept through the journey but at the close I felt an appropriate sadness coupled with satisfaction born of a sense of completion. The Fault in Our Stars touched deep hurt, griefs that I generally keep buried, locked away from view; the tears have been a cleansing release. Everyone faces grief in life; by facing it and engaging with it, one can mourn and move on. I highly recommend the Fault in Our Stars as a masterpiece of literature. I also recommend people talk about the novel, share the issues and feelings it raises for them.