Book review: John Green’s “The Fault In Our Stars”

T-Cells attacking a cancer cell.

About three years ago, my dear friend Doni had to undergo chemotherapy for his cancer. As much as I’ve heard about cancer before, this was the first time that I was actually going to be face to face with it, in a manner of speaking.

It was horrible for me to look at, and I wasn’t even suffering through it. It just wasn’t acceptable to me that my friend — who if you know him, you’d know he’s the life of the party — was in the state that he was in.

My friend is better now, but I’ve avoided cancer “things” ever since because I honestly don’t know if I can handle it. When we interviewed the founder of Kythe for my real job and when the topic of visiting the kids came up, I just knew that I would not be able to do it.

That was why I was a little apprehensive about John Green’s “The Fault In Our Stars”. As much as cancer is a very painful reality for a lot of people, more often than not it just gets treated as a plot device to force tears out of readers or viewers A Walk to Remember. Admittedly, I never thought twice about it before, but my limited experience had me afraid that Green might end up trivializing something so painful for so many people.

John Green’s “The Fault In Our Stars” tells the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, two teenagers with cancer who meet at a support group meeting.

There is an immediate attraction between the two, but Hazel is hesitant to start a relationship with Augustus because of the state of her health. While a wonder drug has bought her some time, her diagnosis, as the book’s blurb states, has always been terminal.

Augustus, however, is nothing if not persistent. Will he succeed in spite of Hazel’s trepidation? Or has Augustus come into Hazel’s life much too late to make any difference?

Because of its premise — two cancer-stricken teenagers falling in love- — it’s easy to expect “The Fault In Our Stars” to be nothing more but a collection of maudlin scenes and trite observations about the fragility of life and the wisdom of the dying. And while it does talk about those things and more, the treatment of it is far from being maudlin or trite.

And it doesn’t take John Green half the novel to do it either. Just two paragraphs into the work, and he immediately wallops the readers with such an insightful observation delivered in such an unsentimental way that it’s hard not to shake your head in admiration.

Green maintains that subtle, intimate tone throughout the book, even if he has every opportunity to turn on the bombast and press at the most obvious emotional buttons. There are all these small scenes in backyards and hospital beds that you wouldn’t think could be so dramatic and yet you end up bawling over them anyway.

Hazel and Augustus aren’t your conventional “love team” either. Aside from the fact that they’re not in the pink of health, Hazel and Augustus actually display the scars that cancer has left on their bodies. Hazel, for instance, has to travel with an oxygen tank, while one of Augustus’ legs had to be amputated because of his osteosarcoma.

And yet, despite going through some things that some of us healthy people will probably never understand, they are far more relatable than some of the pairings being foisted upon us in the YA romances glutting the bookshelves right now. The slow build of their relationship, their banter, the complications that they go through, all of it is so simple and yet so real that it’s hard not to feel for them.

Hazel and Augustus aren’t perfectly-suffering paragons of virtue either. Their is no stoic courage in the face of certain death here — there is desperation, their is ugliness, their is a descent into some of the physical horrors that cancer inflicts on its victims. But what makes Hazel and Augustus likable in spite of all that is the fact that Green never presents it as Hazel and Augustus being weak — it’s just them being human.

That patient and steady building of character and relationships makes it especially easy for Green to twist the knife when it comes to the book’s climax. Green has made Hazel and Augustus so endearing that even if the end isn’t exactly surprising, readers will still probably end up heartbroken.

Even cancer, for all the pain it has caused so many people, gets an even treatment in this book. What is it, after all, but just your cells evolving in a way that is harmful to your own body. It wants to survive just as much as you do. When even the “villain” in this piece gets his say, you know that Green went above and beyond in ensuring that the experiences of those afflicted with this disease are treated with respect.

Respectful, painful in its honesty and simplicity, and possessed with a dry wit and humor that only heightens the poignancy of Hazel and Augustus’ experiences, “The Fault In Our Stars” is a triumph for John Green. As prominent as it is in this book, cancer isn’t really what Green is concerned with — he’s much more concerned with what goes on in our hearts.

“The Fault In Our Stars” is available in your friendly neighborhood National Book Store.

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